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A broad range on Broadway

Curious about the changing sound of the Great White Way? Times Theater Critic Chyarles McNulty weighs in on five noteworthy cast recordings from the year on Broadway -- four from new shows that couldn't be more wildly disparate and one from a classic that's been absolutely revitalized.

June 29, 2008|Charles McNulty

In the Heights

Original Broadway cast (Ghostlight Records)

***

The BARRIO merengues into the theatrical limelight with this 2008 Tony winner for best musical.

A love letter to Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood in which a diverse Latino community is invited to take an extended bow, "In the Heights" mixes salsa, hip-hop and "American Idol"-ized show tunes into a package that's meant to leave everyone feeling happy and full.

Stuffed is more like it. This double-CD cast recording, with sunshiny music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Usnavi, the show's narrator, seems to go on interminably. Blame that on Quiara Alegria Hudes' unwieldy book, which tries to combine two love stories in an oversized mural celebrating the vibrant life around a corner bodega.

Miranda's numbers work best when they're not pushing the huge narrative boulder uphill but simply lazing about in local color. "Paciencia y Fe" (Patience and Faith) gives voice to the unshakable creed of Abuela Claudia, the block's resident grandmother who infuses those around her with a sense of belonging and hope. "Piragua" is a memorable ditty that summons not just the snow-cone refreshment but also the swelter of summer in the city and the sizzling romance that goes with it.

Miranda, who won the Tony for best score, writes the swooniest songs for Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the girl most likely to succeed, who returns home from Stanford University feeling like a failure, and Benny (Christopher Jackson), the attractive young man who works for her father's taxi business (and therefore isn't worthy of his daughter's affection). "Sunrise" and "When the Sun Goes Down" movingly track the couple's amorously hindered path.

As for the rap Miranda prolifically offers -- it's more storytelling device than sharp word slinging. Less would have indeed been more, but there's no denying that the overriding spirit is as genuine as it is generous.

--

A Catered Affair

Original Broadway cast (PS Classics)

*

No ONE likes to kick a show that just received a good hard one from the Tony Awards, especially after the production announced it will be closing in July. But listening to "A Catered Affair" for the first time since reviewing it last fall at San Diego's Old Globe, John Bucchino's dribbling, low-grade score hasn't grown on me. It's still a chore to undergo, as unmusical as it is unmagical -- and about as theatrical as cleaning up the banquet hall after the party's done.

Everyone's favorite Broadway foghorn, Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the Paddy Chayefsky property and stars as the newly conceived gay uncle character, has chalked up the not rousing critical reception to the ambitiousness of the piece. " 'A Catered Affair' is to Broadway musicals what a foreign film is to movies," he has said.

It's a curious defense when you consider the work's profoundly mainstream origins. "A Catered Affair" began in the 1950s as a teleplay and was subsequently adapted by Gore Vidal into the one Bette Davis picture you probably never want to see again.

The style is pallid rather than pianissimo, with a 2-by-4 construction that could make Odets seem like Chekhov. And a tepid score can't be fobbed off as arty.

But how does the cast recording play? Better than Faith Prince's uncharacteristically shaky performance at the Tonys, thankfully.

The production has been blessed with a stellar cast (Leslie Kritzer's edgy Bronx bride impressed me even more this time around). And though Fierstein tilted the balance of the show from chamber drama to schlocky farce, there are a few fleeting moments suggesting the aesthetic that Bucchino, better known as a cabaret songwriter, just isn't skilled enough as a musical theater composer to pull off.

Amid the prolix recitative and simmering sentimentality perpetually threatening to erupt in a full boil, you can't help feeling enormous sympathy for the actors' plight. They deserve better material, and even though Fierstein assures us that he "couldn't be prouder of the show," he deserves better material too.

--

Xanadu

Original Broadway cast (PS Classics)

**

Who WOULD have expected the crummy 1980 film that took the wind out of Olivia Newton-John's sails to make such a sprightly Broadway musical? Kudos to book-writer Douglas Carter Beane for his winking sendup of the movie and Christopher Ashley, who directed the show with frenetic roller-skating lunacy.

In this risible rebirth, an L.A. street artist's dream of owning his own nightclub comes to fruition with the help of several muses, one of whom falls headlong for the mortal against Zeus' strict decree.

Unfortunately, this nutty act of translation doesn't quite come off on the cast recording. To fully experience Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman's hilarious mischief-making version of "Evil Woman," you have to see their vaudevillian madness and mugging, not just hear their crazy cover of Electric Light Orchestra's demi-classic.

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