Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The wonderful "worlds" of musical theatre
Reviews by Rob Lester

You might say that a captivating musical inhabits its own unique world (as do its characters). With Beetlejuice, its title character hails from the post-death world called the Great Beyond (and others go there). Alice by Heart's action is in two under-the-ground worlds, a wartime hideout and Lewis Carroll's sanity-challenged Wonderland, for two Alices. Back on street level, we go from Wonderland to Wanda Land—she's another young girl with troubles; Wanda's World's orbit is around a place with its own perils: middle school.


Ghostlight Records

Irreverence rules the day throughout the kooky cast recording of Beetlejuice. Right off the bat, the shenanigans smugly acknowledge and embrace the fact that it's all about, um, death. And what happens next. (This is cutely conversationally addressed as "The Whole 'Being Dead' Thing."). The not-so-final exit can be just one more incident before re-entering among the living. Winking and breaking the fourth wall early on, a line of dialogue by our ghostly guide, the title character, references a change from the same-named 1988 movie the musical is based on. Brash and sarcastic, Beetlejuice does not suffer fools gladly and is blithely dismissive of those with airs and too-worldly cares. In this role, the endlessly game and energetic, raspy-voiced Alex Brightman has a field day. Whether spouting his unfiltered and snide opinions or busting with frustration, he's funny and feisty with sharp comic skills.

The glib original songs by Australia's Eddie Perfect give the capable cast juicy opportunities to strut, rage, argue, and explode with frustration or joy. Sophia Anne Caruso is especially successful in nailing a teen's mixed emotions (whether simmering or boiling over) as she reacts to her ever-changing challenges and allies, or addressing the recently deceased parent she now guilelessly addresses as "Dead Mom." Rob McClure and Kerry Butler partner well as likably clueless, uptight marrieds failing at such goals as home improvements and improving their scariness potential as newbie ghosts. Leslie Kritzer is a welcome presence zipping through her breezy showcase numbers. As in the film, two old calypso numbers from the early heyday of entertainer Harry Belafonte—"Day-O," aka "The Banana Boat Song," and "Jump in the Line"—are notably incorporated in key moments for added quirkiness.

The caffeinated musical doings, well supported by a punchy orchestra, rarely let up, the swirling nuttiness being quite consistently entertaining and sharply executed. Some humanity and vulnerability sneak in, maybe not under the radar, but they don't seem part of an obvious agenda to add artificial sweetener. A message to appreciate life while we have it registers amiably, rather than in a preachy way. Along the way, we hear the characterizations also exposed via many snippets of the dialogue by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Language choices include some cuss words, but they sometimes sparkle with the tangy freshness of contemporary vocabulary (Examples: "OMG, dressed to a 'T'" in "Creepy Old Guy" and lyrics mentioning wi-fi, Pottery Barn, "new age" lingo, and being a BFF). But they're at their best when Perfect's rhymes are perfect (which, alas, they often aren't) and/or internal. Example, from "Invisible": "...trapped with no escape/ Banished, disavowed/ I've vanished like a cloud of dirty hipster vape."

The world we visit vicariously via the Beetlejuice cast recording is mischievously metaphysical, rough around the edges, and proudly edgy. And all that is part of the charm it wears proudly on its sleeve, sometimes with directness doing the trick. The humor till somehow keeps being surprising.


Ghostlight Records

Come visit two physical worlds that are, pointedly, both underground and not a little bit "downers." In the tubes (subway system) is the safe space shared by Londoners seeking shelter from World War II's bombings, with some mentally escaping that reality through literature's famous fantasy world entered through the rabbit hole (remembering and retelling or re-enacting "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"). Is this combination of two environments—the all-too-real and the fanciful—the best of both dramatic worlds or a duo-journey too jarringly back-and-forth? Is there perhaps not quite enough of either to be fully immersive and involving? Maybe, but it's an intriguing idea and juxtaposition. Arguably, the world we live in now might not desperately need one more musicalized, time-irrelevant, full, loyal treatment of the "Alice" escapades as there have been so very many over the years ("much of a muchness" as Lewis Carroll put it on one page).

The pop theatre score for the long-gestating Alice by Heart by Duncan Sheik (composer), Steven Sater (lyricist and co-bookwriter), and director Jessie Nelson (co-bookwriter) is eclectic, featuring songs of naked emotion in longings and laments or character pieces parading sass, strength, or flashes of Carroll's nonsense. Quickly, several pieces seductively pull us into their varied moods through assertive posturing or a kind of mystical atmosphere. Instrumental accompaniment securely sets evocative moods which become reinforced by forceful or emotion-drenched singing. Much of the latter comes from the disarming performance of plaintive-voiced Colton Ryan as the sickly London lad a girl named Alice is devoted to and worried about. Alice has memorized the Carroll story "by heart" and, as she tells it, they go "Down the Hole," enacting the parts of major characters (she her namesake and he the two rabbit creatures). With nuanced acting and singing, Molly Gordon is affecting and committed as both Alices. (Incidentally, she's been with the piece since way back when and is the director's talented daughter.)

This Alice is by no means kiddie fare. Gloom and doom can fill the air. It's often beautiful gloom and doom, to be sure, but the whimsy and blatant nonsense of the original Carroll story is largely absent or spied through a cloudy lens. Those very familiar with the book in its original form and adaptations will recognize references in new forms. For example, the group number "Your Shell of Grief" references dialogue from the weepy Mock Turtle's self-pitying, self-aggrandizing scene with the puns on the closeness of the words "porpoise" and "purpose" and the schoolmaster tortoise being so named because "he taught us," although for some reason here he's a rabbi and husband.

And other numbers set in Wonderland make use of plot points, prominently or in passing—the aforementioned rabbit hole trip, dancing with lobsters, the use of a live bird as a mallet in croquet ("Manage Your Flamingo"), several of the invented words from the "Jabberwocky" poem, and in "The Key Is," entry to the garden door, which involves changing sizes, courtesy of magical drink and snack. But in many cases there is an overpowering second meaning to words or a bigger philosophical message. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But those rusty in recollecting or unfamiliar with the book's many episodes may find a lot washing over them. And without the booklet's indications of who's singing what, the participating presence of even major characters isn't obvious. But Alice by Heart has other things to offer, including some well-captured mindsets of young people and their aches and personal searching, reminiscent in tone to Sheik and Sater's other potent collaboration, Spring Awakening.

Many lines are striking in their painting of images or poetic food for thought. Here are a few favorites:

"Stay where the grasses sway, the river's stopped movin'/ Here with the lazy blue day, your roses just bloomin'/ So why can't we linger and dream?" (from "Still")

"You can kick at heaven/ Or cry out to the sky/ You can go below words/ And still there's no reply" (from "Some Things Fall Away")

"Nothing comes or goes without a shadow/ Somewhere in the soul you hold the candle/ Let the sorrow go/ It's half the battle" (from "Winter Blooms," the bittersweet finale)

The plot synopsis included in the booklet is an essential read to understand the way the two stories intertwine or diverge and to prevent misunderstandings or assumptions. The wartime setting and the spectre of impending possible demise and life's values give Alice by Heart a sobering feel of caution and uncertainty. Visiting the disconcerting Wonderland with its own off-balance surprises keeps things shaky—and interesting.


Broadway Records

Anyone who still thinks school days are "dear old Golden Rule days," as an old song once stated, or the best years of our lives didn't live through mean girls, bullying, cliques, or being the targeted new kid in town. In Wanda's World, heroine Wanda faces all those things. She's got a large birthmark on her face that makes her a target for mockery by her less than gracious peers. In this earnest family musical, we root for her to be accepted and befriended and to be as happy and confident as she is in her fantasy life, where she pretends to be the respected, sought-after sage dispensing advice on her own TV call-in show. Of course, with a reality check, she finds herself in need of coping advice instead, but not so hopeful.

The perky project with a story by Beth Falcone (composer/lyricist) and Eric H. Weinberger (its late bookwriter, some chunks of whose dialogue is included) has been kicking around for several years, having seen productions in New York City and elsewhere, with marketing also aimed at schools so that the acceptance message and roles will go to tweens, the age group populating the story (with the exception of a few adult roles). Here on this new studio cast recording, and in Manhattan and other mountings, the parts are played by adults. One imagines an even more impactful, real-feel experience with age-appropriate performances, but the recording with some Broadway pros (the savvy Jay Armstrong Johnson and Arielle Jacobs among the students and Nancy Opel and Max Crumm as the sympathetic, supportive teachers) brings polish with no condescending or winking.

The songs have a peppy pop flavor with some musical theatre sensibility, efficiently and energetically delivering the plot and personalities. "No One Can Know" captures the gossipy gush and limited vocabulary of tween talk (when word spreads that a dreamy boy "like, like likes" a certain girl in school). On her first day in the new school, unable to find her homeroom and barely getting past the first rounds of hearing "class dismissed," poor Wanda is instantly dismissed as being hopelessly out of sync with trends ("She's So Last Week"). Singing with a natural, sunny sound, Mallory Bechtel is generally plucky rather than overly mopey as Wanda, so her performance makes us root all the more for her and foreshadows a potential happier ending. And lo and behold, while there's no magic cure for intolerant students, at least she raises awareness about those who are lactose-intolerant in a song called "Not Everyone Eats Cheese" when the subject of pizza as a prioritized cafeteria item comes up for discussion. Maybe you have to start somewhere in sensitivity training. And she starts to feel some self-assurance when she becomes a school journalist, determined to "Blow 'Em Away" with her skills ("If I can do this, I can do anything").

Things can get kind of frenetic, but it's appropriate for the motivations and storyline that include a big school election, cheerleaders, the explosion of determination, a rock star blazingly egging on Wanda not to take the teasing, and a party. Nancy Opel plays the role of the Spanish teacher who happens to have an Irish accent; she gets an over-the-top showpiece called "Diva Latina." This happens during a big school costume celebration which also features Justin Guarini participating with glee in a dance number called "(Anything But a) Routine Halloween." With the exception of this selection, the songwriter does the arrangements and plays keyboards in a nifty seven-piece band, with orchestrations by Bob Malone.

While Wanda's World may not have the depth or broad appeal to capture the interest of all adult musical theatre fans, it should delight many and will hopefully reach and teach many young people who will benefit from its messages and optimism. In "A Face Like Mine," Wanda wavers, singing "If I don't try/ At least I can't fail/ All I want is to belong," and she later realizes "When you're hurt, you do it anyhow ...I won't know until I dare/ It takes courage...That someday is now." Even those well past middle school days or even middle age can use such reminders.

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