Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Two cast recordings of not-so-sunny shows
Reviews by Rob Lester

Nobody said life would be easy. Someone (Thoreau, to be specific) said that most of us "lead lives of quiet desperation." Still, we look for the silver linings in the clouds that seem to dominate the skies for protagonists in two Broadway productions from this season with new cast recordings. Black and white characters with problems share rooms and viewpoints in these pieces set in the past: we're in Minnesota, 1934, for Girl from the North Country and down south to Louisiana in 1963 with the revival of Caroline, or Change. Grab a box of tissues and give a listen.

Runaway Entertainment/ Sony Legacy
CD and digital

If misery loves company, then the company of Girl from the North Country has the commiseration thing down to an art. The achingly beautiful harmonies make gloom sound glorious. Playwright/director Conor McPherson brings us to a bleak time and place and a set of troubled souls: the Depression; Minnesota; and a boarding house inhabited long term (well, 'til the bank forecloses) by a family with struggles and short term by those who pass through seeking shelter.

Repurposed poignant and potent Bob Dylan songs (some in combinations) make up the score, but their lyrics may seem too insightful, too full of images that are either very specific or elusive to literally fit the thoughts or life experiences of these folks. Attempting to make that happen could be folly, so they are not tasked to carry that weight of serving as an extension of dialogue exchanges that could seem forced or worse. Some of the numbers capture the general ambience, the yearning, imagination, and sing-along storytelling style that resembles a group of kindred spirits sitting around a campfire.

Listening to and appreciating the cast recording of Girl from the North Country can be informed by knowledge of the plot and plights of these people (a man who runs the place who's married to a woman with dementia but may be ditching her for someone else in-house, his unemployed boozy son and adopted, unwed pregnant daughter of another race, plus the transients who aren't always what they seem). But this context is not a prerequisite to enjoy and be moved by the skillful performances of the selections that can be cathartic outpourings of sorrow or worry tempered with survival instincts that prevent proceedings suggesting self-awareness from dissolving into self-pity parties. And the purely aural affair of a cast recording without dialogue interwoven (like this and so many) is its own separate experience that can, hopefully, stand on its own. This one does.

So, we can forget that she's playing the older woman with behavior in some scenes that indicate dementia when standout Mare Winningham summons warmth and wisdom to sound like the show's sturdiest anchor instead. She steps out so forcefully in command on full-bodied vocals of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young."

When we hear the song "Hurricane" (with Austin Scott leading the group) about this fictitious boxer in the 1930s so nicknamed, we may not be disturbed that Dylan wrote (collaborating with Jacques Levy) this about a notable real-life boxer sent to prison whom he met in the 1960s. The incompatible motley crew of characters may be uncomfortable with each other, but the group singing has the sweetest of blends. Starting a song with the line "Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted" ("Slow Train") might make us expect unrelenting despair, but it becomes hypnotic. It may take a leap to have a line like this one from "Jokerman" sound natural: "You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing." Just go with the flow and reap the rewards.

There are so many vocals that are disarming and provocative in Girl from the North Country. Some personal favorites are Rachel Stern leading the title song, Colton Ryan and Caitlin Houlahan in the hypnotic, slow "I Want You," and in the only composition from this century and the only other Dylan co-write (with Robert Hunter), Todd Almond is a lightning rod with the dynamic "Duquesne Whistle" (I wish he had more to do). Jeannette Bayardelle invigorates the finale, "Pressing On," giving full gale force to the potential for perseverance that we sense struggling to come through many times when despair raised its ugly head previously. But, arguably, it's the teamwork of the harmonies that are the emotional core here, breathtakingly gutsy; they suggest the commonality of human experience and reactions, even when ostensibly relating an individual's private thoughts or a confession.

The band of six musicians, orchestrated by Simon Hale, is a crucial element contributing to the recording's success. I'm so glad there was room for the graceful, if brief, instrumental interludes. Martha McDonnell's evocative work on violin and mandolin deserves special praise for suggesting an aching heart. And indeed there is a lot in Girl from the North Country that comes from–and touches–the heart.

(2-CD SET)
Roundabout Records/ Broadway Records
CD and digital

If you're looking for non-sentimental musicalized character clashes and angst in song–in bulk–the 53 tracks on the cast recording of the revival of Caroline, or Change should be sufficient–or a surfeit. Friction mounts. Scenes (many lasting a bit under or over a minute's time) often display discomfort, sorrows, frustration, and resentment that simmer with the potential to boil over. Performed with admirable commitment, the tension can command attention and effectively engender sympathy for the burdened people representing three generations in 1963 in Louisiana. Hopes (thwarted or clung to), struggles and strife come to life in the striking singing that has spoken lines mixed in.

With so many short scenes and conversations, listening to the recording is almost like tuning into an old-fashioned radio play. Personalities are clear and consistent. To the cast's credit, the interactions feel authentic, not sacrificing a naturalistic style for showy singing (except, understandably, for the splashy and fun strutting when Caroline's actual radio comes to imagined life).

The charming and successful idea to have the household appliances and the moon voiced by cast members allows for musical variety in genres and energy. And, too, this personification presents perspective and imagined advice, challenging or stimulating Caroline. N'Kenge, as the moon, shines as her soothing vocal timbre and melodic lines bring welcome balm to the gloom and doom. Providing livelier contrast, those representing the radio bring sparkle in spot-on pastiches of pop of the period; it's a savvy theatrical coup when catchy upbeat singing sugar coats reality-checked words of warning and pessimism.

Listening again to the 2004 cast recording of this score by Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner side by side with this new version doesn't reveal two vastly different treatments, tones, or contents. The same orchestrators are credited, the song tempi (and thus timings) are very close. Directed this time by Michael Longhurst, approaches to characters are not always hugely different, but much feels sharper and bolder here, with some richer voices and personalities that "pop" more.

Black maid Caroline as portrayed imposingly by Sharon D Clarke is dutiful but brittle in dealing with the non-harmonious white Jewish family employing her. Her Caroline is dour but determined, despite daily drudgery and despair, to have some control and dignity. Caissie Levy as the lady of the house Rose Gellman presents cannily nuanced exhibitions of exasperation when her attempts to have pleasant interactions with others are rebuffed. Chip Zien brings his distinctive, somewhat quirky likability and brio to the role of her opinionated father, Mr. Stopnick. Samantha Williams sings forcefully as Caroline's strong-willed daughter Emmie. The young boys alternating as Noah (Gabriel Amoroso, Adam Makké, and Jaden Myles Waldman) do a fine job, sounding refreshingly natural and never seem to be playing the "cute" card.

Topics sung about with emotional impact include religion–or the lack thereof ("There Is No God, Noah"), the assassination of the president ("JFK"), the holidays ("Santa Comin' Caroline" and "The Chanukah Party," including lyrics to public domain melodies), and racial issues. But so much of the material dwells on weariness, family arguments, and especially the very frequent discussions of the money Caroline finds left in pockets when doing the laundry and whether she should keep it. Soon it may evoke a tedious "Here we go again" feeling (even though this money has a pay-off in the plot climax, it does feel belabored before we get to that point).

Those looking for a good "feel-good" musical–or one where at least, at last, there's a blissfully happy ending worth waiting for–will still be left waiting. The somewhat claustrophobic and caustic Caroline, or Change is an often glum but artful kitchen sink drama (or, rather, a basement laundry room drama) and provides no glib songs touting panaceas for problems. Still and all, the performers here let a sense of hovering hope and their characters' better intentions come through. That projected pathos makes this recording more involving.