musicals

MUSIC REVIEW: The Network’s “Trans Am”, Tim Minchin’s “Apart Together”, and “If the Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album”

I don’t normally review music here. From time-to-time, I make exceptions, but on the whole, I don’t feel particularly qualified to review music. I don’t write music, I don’t understand how one comes up with the perfect song. Nonetheless, I love music. And, sometimes, there are weeks where multiple albums that I am excited about all release on the same day. And, on those weeks, I feel the desire to take a listen to those albums and talk about them. This week, The Network (a Green Day side project) released an EP entitled “Trans Am,” Tim Minchin released his debut solo album entitled “Apart Together,” and the original Broadway cast of Hadestown released “If the Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album.” So, let’s talk about all of them.

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REVIEW: “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”

Who doesn’t love a good Christmas movie musical? I certainly do, as do most others, I think. There’s just something about Christmas and musicals that go very well together. So, when I heard that Netflix was making Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, I was interested to see what they’d pull together. The trailer looked like a whimsical delight, filled with gorgeous sets and an all-star cast. And, having seen the film, that’s precisely what it is. While Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey could stand to be about thirty minutes shorter, it’s a bundle of holiday joy packed with fantastic performances, gorgeous visuals, and some pretty solid songs. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There may be mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (written and directed by David E. Talbert)
A musical adventure and a visual spectacle for the ages, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a wholly fresh and spirited family holiday event. Set in the gloriously vibrant town of Cobbleton, the film follows legendary toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) whose fanciful inventions burst with whimsy and wonder. But when his trusted apprentice (Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key) steals his most prized creation, it’s up to his equally bright and inventive granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) — and a long-forgotten invention — to heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within. From the imagination of writer-director David E. Talbert and featuring original songs by John Legend, Philip Lawrence, and Davy Nathan, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey reminds us of the strength of family and the power of possibility. 

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REVIEW: “Repo! The Genetic Opera”

I love a good, bad movie. Especially ones that aren’t trying to be bad. There’s something deeply enjoyable about a movie taking itself utterly seriously and being incredibly genuine with its material – especially when the results are probably not as objectively “good” as its creators might have intended. This is where Repo! The Genetic Opera enters. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a movie musical in the same vein as The Rocky Horror Picture Show – it’s a sci-fi musical made on a low budget that, in the years after its release, has found a cult following. And, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! The Genetic Opera is just one of those films that have to be seen to be believed. It is all at once confusing, entertaining, delightful, baffling, and grotesque. It’s an experience to behold and it’s a film that I adore. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There are spoilers ahead.)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (written by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman)
In the mid-21st century, an epidemic of organ failures leads to the rise of GeneCo., a company providing transplants at a great price. Those who miss their payments become targets of GeneCo. mercenaries, who repossess the organs. In a world of drug addiction and legalized murder, a sheltered youth (Alexa Vega) seeks a cure for her rare disease as well as information about her family’s mysterious history. Her questions are answered at “The Genetic Opera.”

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REVIEW: “Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown” by Anaïs Mitchell

Hadestown is one of my favorite musicals from the last few years. It moved me in a way that many musicals fail to do. I found the whole thing utterly captivating and gorgeous. It’s one of those rare musicals where the entirety of the show is delivered through its music and lyrics. Sure, the staging plays a large part in the deliverance of the story, but there is no spoken dialogue. Everything that’s said on stage comes from the music – all of which came from the mind of Anaïs Mitchell. And that’s what makes Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown so appealing. It’s widely known how difficult writing musicals is. So, when it was announced that a book exploring the lyrics of Hadestown was due to be published, along with extensive commentary from Mitchell, I was immediately curious to see what all she’d talk about in the book. And, man, if you’re looking for insight into how composers and lyricists craft musical, this is the book for you. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

In this book, Anaïs Mitchell takes readers inside her more than decade’s-long process of building the musical from the ground up—detailing her inspiration, breaking down the lyrics, and opening up the process of creation that gave birth to Hadestown. Fans and newcomers alike will love this deeply thoughtful, revealing look at how the songs from “the underground” evolved, and became the songs we sing again and again.

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REVIEW: “Hamilton” on Disney+

Anyone who knows me knows that I went through a pretty hardcore Hamilton phase when that musical first hit Broadway. I played the album all the time, I knew the vast majority of the lyrics. I adored that show. And I still do, even if I think In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s superior show. So, naturally, when the news broke that Disney+ would be debuting the live capture of the show, recorded just before the original cast departed, over a year earlier than expected, I was devilishly excited. I’d only seen bits and pieces of the show, having never had a chance to see it in person, and I was so ready to finally see this show that I loved. Well, now that I’ve seen the film, how do I feel? I mean, it’s Hamilton and I love Hamilton. But, to be honest, this capture is a bit of a mixed bag. (4 out of 5 wands.)

Hamilton (directed by Thomas Kail, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
An unforgettable cinematic stage performance, the filmed version of the original Broadway production of “Hamilton” combines the best elements of live theater, film and streaming to bring the cultural phenomenon to homes around the world for a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Hamilton” is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, “Hamilton” has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. Filmed at The Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June of 2016, the film transports its audience into the world of the Broadway show in a uniquely intimate way.

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Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Should Get; or How to Update the Women of “Damn Yankees” – An Editorial

gwen1955’s Damn Yankees, with a libretto by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, music by Richard Adler, and lyrics by Jerry Ross, is iconic in its own right. It is a retelling of the classic Faust story, with Joe Boyd selling his soul to Mr. Applegate in order to play for his favorite baseball team – the Washington Senators. It marked the first collaboration between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, leading to their multi-decade relationship and partnership. It ran for 1,019 performances on Broadway and spawned a reasonably successful film adaptation in 1958. So, why is Damn Yankees revived so rarely? Aside from a short, but successful, run in 2008 as part of the City Center Encores! Series, the last major American production of the show was its 1994 revival – a revival that ran for over two years, itself. If the show is as popular as it seems, why is it so rarely done outside of schools and other smaller theatres? Perhaps it has something to do with its subject matter and how well it has stood the test of time? That is certainly true for other Golden Age musicals. But is it true for Damn Yankees? Maybe not. In fact, Damn Yankees is one of the rare Golden Age musicals that holds up relatively well. However, there are certainly things that can be done to make it more appealing for a modern audience – most notably an update in its depiction of women. (more…)

REVIEW: “Bandstand: The Broadway Musical”

bandstandAmong the artistic industries suffering the hardest during the COVID-19 crisis is the Broadway community. Unlike with film and TV, Broadway has nearly nothing “in the can” that they can roll out to fill the time all of their theatres are shut down. No shows can be performed while all the theatres are closed and nobody can gather to see them. So, what is Broadway to do? Answer: release some of the musicals they’ve professionally filmed over the years. Which is where Bandstand enters. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and featuring a book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker, Bandstand tells the story of a group of PTSD-suffering World War II veterans who, after returning home from the war, form a band and compete in a nationwide songwriting competition. The show opened on April 26, 2017, and closed on September 17, 2017, playing only 166 performances. The musical was filmed towards the end of its run and shown in movie theaters in November 2018. Yet most of the public, even the theatre-going public, probably haven’t heard of it. With its early closure, its mixed reviews, and its lack of any major Tony nominations, Bandstand would seem to the definition of a flop destined to rot in obscurity. But does it deserve that reputation? From a financial standpoint, sure. But from a creative one? I’d argue the opposite. I’d argue that Bandstand is one of those forgotten treasures that hit Broadway at exactly the wrong time. It’s a show filled with captivating characterizations and excellent music and is well worth a watch. (Spoilers for Bandstand follow.)

Bandstand (directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, lyrics by  Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor and music by Richard Oberacker)
1945; as America’s soldiers come home to ticker-tape parades and overjoyed families, Private First Class Donny Novitski, singer and songwriter, returns to rebuild his life with only the shirt on his back and a dream in his heart. When NBC announces a national competition to find the nation’s next great musical superstars, inspiration strikes! Donny joins forces with a motley group of fellow veterans, forming a band unlike any the nation has ever seen. Along the way, they discover the power of music to face the impossible, find their voice and finally feel like they have a place to call home.

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REVIEW: “The Prince of Egypt – Original Cast Recording”

prince of egyptAs I say every time I review an album, I don’t consider myself a music reviewer. I know the basics of what makes a song work, but I do know what I like and I mostly know why I like it. I do consider myself someone who can review musicals, though, which is why I’ll occasionally review the cast album for a musical. A good cast album should be able to stand on its own as a wholly complete piece of music but should also be a good representation of the musical and its plot. This is where The Prince of Egypt enters. I grew up watching the film and absolutely adore it. It’s once of my favorite animated musicals of all time and I’ve long wanted it to be adapted for the stage, much like Disney does with their animated films. And it’s finally happened. A big, grande adaptation opened in London’s West End earlier this year, and its cast album dropped today. Featuring all-but-one of the film’s songs and a whole host of new songs by original lyricist and composer, Stephen Schwartz, can this new musical hold a candle to its iconic source material? In short: more or less.

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REVIEW: “CATS” (2019)

cats-2-1200-1900-5dd449115b84b-1All of us saw the trailer for this movie, and I’m pretty sure all of us felt the same wave of confusion and borderline-revulsion. Even if you were familiar with the hit Broadway musical that inspired this film, there was something about how uncanny the CGI looked that bordered on the horrifying instead of the cute. Not exactly the best start, yeah? Going into CATS, most of the audience probably expected a train wreck. I certainly did. That being said, whoever cut together the trailers for the film should not edit trailers for a living as the trailers were an awful representation of the movie. At the end of the day, CATS is neither as consistently weird throughout as you want it to be, nor is it as good as the film seems to think it is. There are plenty of weird moments, too, but once you get used to the CGI, it’s basically exactly the stage musical as you remember it. Is it fun? Yeah, most of the time. Is it worth seeing? Sure, at least once. But your overall enjoyment will depend almost entirely on how much you like the musical. I liked the movie a bit more than I liked the musical (for reasons that will become apparent) – but I also really don’t like the musical. (Very mild spoilers ahead.)

CATS (written by Lee Hall & Tom Hooper, directed by Tom Hooper)
Featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic music and a world-class cast of dancers under the guidance of Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), the film reimagines the musical for a new generation with spectacular production design, state-of-the-art technology, and dance styles ranging from classical ballet to contemporary, hip-hop to jazz, street dance to tap.

A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

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REVIEW – “Black Friday”: A New Musical from Team Starkid (Spoiler Free)

black fridayOver the past ten years, Team Starkid has produced twelve full-length musicals (including their newest, Black Friday), eventually going on to post those shows on their YouTube page and making good, original theatre far more accessible than most theatre-lovers are used to. It’s been a delight to see how Starkid has grown from a group of plucky college kids making silly Harry Potter musical parodies into a full-fledged company that’s gone on multiple nationwide tours and written musicals that could legitimately give more “professional”/Broadway shows a run for their money. Like any group that’s been around for such a length of time, the quality of their work has ebbed and flowed; after all, not every show can be a masterpiece. But their most recent show, The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, seemed to reignite a fire within the group and their fanbase, leading to unprecedented success in their Kickstarter campaign for their 10th anniversary season – a reunion concert featuring every Starkid performer willing to return and a brand new musical, Black Friday. With Black Friday having opened last week and the digital ticket being released earlier this week, it seemed like an apt opportunity to take a look at Starkid’s newest musical and see just what’s happening in Hatchetfield this time around. The biggest question: how is the show? In short, it’s really good. In fact, it might be one of my favorite shows from Starkid.

(This review is based on the Digital Ticket released earlier this week. As such, none of the technical elements of the show – aside from its set and basic lighting design – will be discussed as it seems unfair to judge them based on a single camera angle. Also, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.)

Black Friday (music and lyrics by Jeff Blim; book by Matt and Nick Lang; directed by Nick Lang)
Somewhere in the American Midwest, at the crossroads of nightmare and imagination, there is a tiny town where the veil of reality wears thin and eldritch forces threaten to unravel the fabric of the universe… Black Friday is a new horror-comedy musical about the shopping day from hell. When the holiday season’s hottest new toy, the Tickle-Me Wiggly, hits the shelves, the city of Hatchetfield goes mad for it, literally. That’s when Tom Houston, Lex Foster, Becky Barnes and a few familiar faces, must fight through a sea of murderous mall-goers to save humanity from an inter dimensional being with a taste for chaos. When Wiggly comes to town, will the world survive Black Friday?

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