Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Penelope guys & Dahl's tale of Matilda, revisited
Reviews by Rob Lester

JAY Records
CD, Digital

Are you ready for a romp? While the parties involved were very fondly following in the traditions of classic musical comedy structures and ancient Greek epic poems, some funny things happened on the way to the forms, the happy result being Penelope or How The Odyssey Was Really Written. The merry musical's first recording represents the cast of a production mounted by Manhattan's invaluable York Theatre Company this past spring. It is and it isn't the same old/same old writing architecture and archetypes, and there's much fun to be had as a talented cast cavorts and vents characters' frustrations. This is a winking new slant on the adventures of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and patient Penelope, awaiting years for his return, while some have assumed he died. Usually in serious mode, others have dramatized the tale, with and without music (in various styles).

The cunning conceit of Penelope... is that the title character, in order to discourage very persistent suitors, reads them letters she claims are from her husband, alive and well, when in fact she has fabricated them–and the creatively imagined escapades described therein become the text of the iconic saga credited to Homer. And, speaking of acknowledging writers, let's give props to lyricist Peter Kellogg (also the bookwriter) and composer Stephen Weiner for producing zippy, smile-inducing work. Adding panache is David Hancock Turner, the pianist/orchestrator/music director of the band; he's joined by four other musicians.

Much of the going is brisk and bubbly, even if there are a few occasions where the excitement leads to a few singing climaxes that become suddenly disconcertingly LOUD, but the melodies flow with charm and the lyrics show a knack for anachronisms and clear characterizations. Listening to the recording brings one quickly into its cutely cozy world. It's an enjoyable place to visit.

Britney Nicole Simpson as Penelope makes a likable heroine, with involved singing that allows her to show longing, vexation, suspicion and assertiveness, even though most of the big laugh-out-loud stuff is delivered by others. Treats among the 23 tracks include: "No One Will Ever Know," in which she nails the joys of writing and her scam; the cleverly rhymed "Pigs!," presented with excellent exasperation by Maria Wirries; and "We Need a Plan," displaying the Ben Jacoby/Philippe Arroyo teamwork/chemistry as indecisive Ulysses and endearing son, respectively, brainstorming. Especially entertaining throughout the peppy proceedings are several samples of the suitors harmonizing to sing the praises of Penelope as a polished a capella barbershop quartet or in pop styles.

The experience of just listening to a cast recording, of course, robs us of the visual elements that might make certain songs stand out more or less. Thus, the story's necessary letters being sung might not seem as compelling as they might be on stage where the incidents were acted out or if you remember many of "The Odyssey"'s odd incidents and the lyrics feel like a Cliffs Notes-style review course instead of the main course. Contrastingly, a rich group number called "The Moment Is All" feels like a satisfying and major sum-up of perspectives, so it may be surprising to learn from Mr. Kellogg's very detailed plot synopsis in the CD's booklet that this was cut from the debut production.

Spoiler alert: After some confusion, confessions, and conflict, Ulysses gets a warm welcome. The Penelope... cast recording is most welcome, too.

CD, Digital, (vinyl coming 4/21)

Rambunctious and rollicking, with respites of tenderness and nine instrumental score selections, the soundtrack of Matilda The Musical arrives with a splash. Get ready to root for the young girl whose story has roots in Roald Dahl's novel, as this new movie adaptation follows in the hard-stomping footsteps of its musicalized stage predecessor seen around the world.

This battle of wills between the seething schoolmistress from hell and the feisty students, including plucky survivor Matilda, is full of sass and strutting. At this school, it's all about the three "R"s: rules, retribution and rebellion. As some other put-upon kids put it in another musical, it's the hard-knock life. But that makes for plentiful reasons to sing. And the spirited youngsters in the massive Matilda ensemble are a terrific strength-in-numbers force to be reckoned with, as we hear the plaints of their plight.

The cast's adept performances of Tim Minchin's pointed songs are colorful and entertaining, whether furiously fleet or contrastingly sweet. They share the playing time with the much-more-than-just-background instrumental tracks, many replete with tension and bustle, composed by Christopher Nightingale, who contributed additional music to the stage version as well as its kinetic orchestrations, as he does for the film. (He's also the producer of the recording.)

Quite the hoot as the harsh head of the school, Emma Thompson is deliciously menacing, steely as she steals the show. Seemingly savoring the surliness, she pounces on her songs, but with calibration in some slow boils of sadistic threats. The actress is spot on in spitting out words after chewing on some consonants. In sniffing out any evidence of "The Smell of Rebellion," the prowling, simmering sadistic image is crystallized. The polar opposite of this energy is the kind, caring teacher, Miss Honey, portrayed by Lashana Lynch; her solo, "My House," about being content with her modest means is a gentle and touching highlight.

Alisha Weir, 11 years old at the time of production, is a real find as the title character, with an ear-pleasing singing voice and acting that eschews the pitfalls that have plagued some child performers over the years (stridency or overplaying the "cute" card). Her diction is quite good and the emotions come through clearly, too, with the appropriate assertiveness in proclaiming a determination to be "Naughty" when need be, while "Quiet" is quite vulnerable and pensive. Although much is exaggerated and fanciful in the story, our heroine comes across on the recording as sufficiently "real." And she holds her own when sharing two very sentimental numbers with adults, both celebrating mutual support. They are "I'm Here" with Carl Spencer (this number's writing credit is given to both Minchin and Nightingale) and Minchin's one new addition, the feel-good and oh-so-earnestly thankful "Still Holding My Hand," with Lashana Lynch.

As is often the case with stage musicals rethought for film, some songs have been cut. The roles of Matilda's parents thus are less prominent and she no longer has a sibling. Prospective purchasers of the CD glancing at the track list of 22 titles on the back cover at a physical store aren't informed which ones (and how many) are instrumentals. The enclosed booklet has all the credits, lyrics, comments from the two composers, and eight color photos from the movie which is now available to see on Netflix. But just experiencing it all through the audio documentation, you'll get quite a bit of the sturm und drang as well as the style and drama.