Stephie From The Block (Television/Stage Thoughts: Stephanie J Block Live From Lincoln Center)

 

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I love theater. I love theater music, I love theater performers – the belters, the Ethel Mermans. So it’s no surprise that I loved ‘Stephanie J Block Live at Lincoln Center.’ This episode, taped last Dec 22, showcases one of the best voices on Broadway these days (she will be playing Cher in ‘The Cher Show’ opening soon on the boards) and this shows off her wonderful belting voice. I once saw her on a touring production of ‘Anything Goes,’ on the same production where Sutton Foster won a Tony, and the great thing about Block in that production was that I forgot about Foster’s performance, because Block made the role her own. Here, in this concert, she sings ‘Defying Gravity, and gosh darn you will ask ‘Idina who’ after hearing her version. I am not saying her version is better than Idina’s but you will definitely her version is different – and works just as well. And the thing I really appreciate in this show is how I saw a different side of Block – she has a sparkling sassy personality that you will want to just embrace. No wonder she is such a beloved figure in the theater community. For me, my two favorite numbers of hers here are the most personal ones for her  – when she sings about her husband in a medlette of ‘My Man/The Music That Makes me Dance,’ and when her husband, Sebastian Arcelus, duets with her with the gender-bending version of ‘Move On.’  This show made me miss New York.

Tucker’s Road (Music Thoughts: On The Road, Rachel Tucker)

51zqPvxhfUL._SS500I know there are big Wicked fans who worship Rachel Tucker (she played Elphaba on Broadway and West End) but I know the kind of big belter voice that is needed to be Elphaba so I could already imagine what kind of voice Tucker has even though I had never heard her sing before.

Sure enough, she has that Idina inspired big throttle, and it’s appealing, for sure. Her album, ‘On The Road,’ is a good listen. It shifts from Broadway karaoke to some inspired tracks. We don’t really need from her a version of Bette Midler’s arrangement of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ but sure, why not. And her duet with Lee Mead of ‘You Matter To Me,’ is okay, competent for sure, but eh? I actually liked her version of that other Waitress song much better : the tender ‘She Used To be Mine.’ And the song from Wicked she covers. ‘No Good Deed’ works in this context. Tucker’s album has a slight country feel, and that for sure gives it a bit of character  – there’s a great down-to-earth feel to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle On a Hill’ here.  All in all, this album will please her fans. For me, it seems just a bit green.

Livin’ LuPone (Music Thoughts: Don’t Monkey With Broadway, Patti LuPone)

51K64Ah+T8LI don’t think anyone would argue with you if you said Patti Lupone is one of the biggest, brightest, and most influential actors in the history of Broadway. She certainly has put in her work there, with iconic roles both in musicals and plays. So any musical recording of hers deserve undivided attention. She has just release her new live album, ‘Don’t Monkey With Broadway,’ which was recorded Live at John Engeman Theater in her hometown of Northport, Long Island.  And I listened. And I paid attention.

And I laughed, and cried. There is still no one like her – each song is a character. I cannot think of a more ‘singing actress’ than LuPone and she gives her fans everything here – her ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,’ her ‘Meadowlark,’ her ‘Some People.’ We, her fans, eat it up and swallow it whole heartedly with a smile in her face. She is one of those performers who give two hundred percent of herself in every number, and you really never know what Patti you are going to get, but you know it’s going to be memorable.

But to be honest, I saw some cracks in the system. I have always thought she had pitch problems, and maybe I am a little more nit picky than usual, but they seem to be more and more evident here. Plus, let’s not kid ourselves, there are high notes there that just aren’t going to be connected.

Still – when she goes through ‘If,’ from ‘Two On The Aisle,’ you just go giddy with pleasure. And she does a trio of Sondheim and they all have the LuPone stamp on them (and she has one of the few ‘Being Alive’ I can tolerate) and really, there’s more LuPone here per square foot than anywhere else. So everything is fine in ‘Don’t Monkey WIth Broadway,’ and at times it is much much better than fine.

Ramin Down South (Music Thoughts: The Road To Find Out – South, Ramin Karimloo)

51QiuzCI-DL._SS500Ramin Karimloo is best known for his leading man roles on Broadway, but he really stands out singing in the Country/Bluegrass vein.  In ‘The Road To Find Out: South,” he shows that prowess. This album is part of a four EP set. (West, North, East..) where he sings both a mixture of showtunes and his own compositions in his own style. In this compilation, South, I focus on the show songs: ‘Old Man River’ is sung almost in a plain non-tenor style, and you almost feel like this is a new song, with non of theatricality of the song.  And in ‘Eidelweiss,’ we go from the mountains of Austria to Smoky Mountains of the South – and it’s magnificent.  I wish I could say more about the self-penned songs. They sound nice, but, honestly, did not really speak to me.

Window Waves (Music Thoughts: Waving Through A Window Remixes)

dear-evan-hansen-waving-through-a-window-remixesI cannot remember a song from a Broadway show released a single from its cast album. And even more interestingly,  a mini album of three songs remixed by various DJs was released. From ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ its most popular song ‘Waving Through A Window’ got a Tony Moran Remix, which is my favorite from three.  It’s your typical club mix – house but not too heavy, and most appealing to me, you can sing along to the lyrics. Actually even on the two other remixes, by DJLW and Ludato and Joseph Duveen, the lyrics are always present and none of these three tracks are inaccessible. So the question is: who will want these in their lives. Loyal fans of the show would (and there are a lot of  them) For others, your mileage may vary.

And I Cannot Really Tell You (Stage Thoughts, Dreamgirls, The Savoy Theater)

DreamgirlsOn my recent visit to London, the one show I really wanted to see was Casey Nicholaw’s production of ‘Dreamgirls’ at The Savoy Theater.  I have never seen a proper production of the show, and this particular production has been revered and slated to be moving to Broadway later this year – its first Broadway revival ever. After purchasing tickets, I fully immersed myself into the cast recording, and based on that alone, had several questions. Firstly, why does Deena here have a really weak singing voice, especially along side Amber Riley’s.  I mean, is this an obvious directorial choice? Also, I observed that Amber Riley’s performance seems a little too clean, based on the cast recording anyway. But I still was so looking forward to seeing the production, and to say I was excited would be am understatement.

Enter a horrific experience getting in from Heathrow – long lines at passport control, an Uber ride from hell, and found myself rushing to theater late. And adding insult to injury, realized that Amber Riley was on vacation that week, so I was doubly crestfallen. But make no mistake, Marsha Wallace, her understudy, did a more-than-competent Effie.

So what did I think of the production? Nicholaw is more than competent as well, and I loved several directorial touches (There’s a ‘reveal’ in ‘I Am Changing’ that made me utter ‘wow)  Gregg Barnes’ costumes do wow, and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone, set by Tim Hartley impress. But they impress, at times, just for the sake of. I did not find a lot of synch because each item is to sleek, too shiny, too polished. I always imagine Michael Bennett’s staging – all sleek towers that ebb and flow, and the only thing I can wonder is if he would approve of the modernness of this production.

Plus. this seems too influenced by the movie version. The addition of ‘Listen’ never did anything for me, and here as performed as a duet by Effie and Deena, still seem lifeless – all sound no fury. And the super amplification doesn’t help it. And while we are on the subject of Liisa Lofantaine as Deena, I was still bothered by her sometimes pitchy singing. As an actress, she was fine, but I honestly had cringey moments while listening to her singing.

As for my disappointment on not seeing Riley? When I was on TKTS booth in Leicester Square the next morning, the very knowledgeable young lady recommending shows told me that she thought Amber Riley was much too young to essay the role of Effie, and felt her performance hollow. Well, maybe I am just being bitter but perhaps in this production, it really doesn’t matter which Effie you see in the role. Even in her viral performance singing ‘And I Am Not Telling You,’ I felt disconnect with her character. Of course, I cannot definitely say that because I did not see her performance, but it did make me pause.

Musical Tonight (Movie Thoughts: Opening Night)

opening-night-poster01The Tonys were last night, and I have mixed feelings about the telecast. Maybe it stems from my dislike of Kevin Spacey, but I just did not enjoy the telecast at all, although of course I enjoyed a lot of the content, and it is that rare night in television when Broadway is highlighted. It kind of whet my appetite and I ended up today watching ‘Opening Night,’ this film set backstage of a Broadway musical. Directed by Isaac Rentz, the film is about a stage manager (Topher Grace) who used to be a star himself on Broadway. We get to see him diffuse fire after fire in an attempt to let the show go on on opening night. It’s a cute film, and if you were to take it seriously you will find a lot of flaws, but it moves quick enough and there are enough laughs – and music – to distract you from logic. I like the fact that the musical they are staging is interesting – a jukebox musical of one-hit-wonder songs – and even stars JC Chasez of NSync.  And Grace is cute and charming in a ‘straight guy’ role among a bunch of crazy actors and performers. there are some good musical performances as well from Taye Diggs and Leslie Margherita, and that’s no surprise because those two are seasoned Broadway performers.  I enjoyed the film a lot, and recommend it especially if you are a Broadway baby like myself.