Theater Shelf: Reviews of New Phantom CD/DVD, New Godspell and Cleopatra the Ballet

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature by our reviewer Brad Hathaway, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by but didn’t even know about.

 
By Brad Hathaway

Phantom of the Opera – 25th Anniversary Concert Staging on DVD and CD

 
The 25th Anniversary of what is now the longest running musical in Broadway history was celebrated last October with not just a concert, but a full staging of the entire show in London’s massive Royal Albert Hall with its seating of over 5,000. It was captured on audio and video discs, each or either of which may make you wish you had been there.

It is not likely that any one who really wants to see The Phantom of the Opera hasn’t already attended a performance either in London or on Broadway, or one of the innumerable stops of the touring production – or, for that matter, in Las Vegas where a slightly shortened version releases its audience into the casino early enough to get some gambling in. Perhaps you saw the movie version that came out in 2004.

If you have somehow resisted for a quarter century, but are now willing to sample “the magic of the music of the night,” the DVD (available in regular or in Blu-ray) provides a full viewing experience. It documents what was not a simple concert, but wasn’t a simple repeat of the original either. After all, that original was still playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London as well as at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway where its number of performances has now passed an astonishing 10,000.

Instead, what producer Cameron Macintosh staged for one night at the Royal Albert Hall, a concert venue that doesn’t have a proscenium stage, was akin to an environmental production in which the hall itself became the opera house haunted by the famous “Opera Ghost.”

Using the late Maria Björnson’s original concepts, set designer Matt Kinley and projection designer Jon Driscoll used the latest video screen and projection technology to augment two staircases and multiple platforms with video screens above and behind a large playing space. A huge orchestra hovered on a platform and the sound of the piece became all enveloping. The cast, including actors, dancers and ensemble members numbered 145.

The Original London Cast recording was a two-disc set which ran 1:40 with a few judicious cuts in the opera segments but was relatively complete musically. It had sterling performances by Michael Crawford as the Phantom, Sarah Brightman as his muse, Christine Daaé, and Steve Barton as her childhood sweetheart, Raoul.

This new recording is lengthier, providing the full 2:16 of the actual show’s length including dialogue. Then it runs on for another 18 minutes to present the curtain calls, the introduction of special guests, and an encore which is thrilling, but the disc would be better if they had deleted the non-musical material. Just how many times do you think you want to listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber send a greeting to Harold Prince who, he had been told, was watching the telecast from New York?

The DVD (or Blu-ray) represents the full evening as it was captured for streaming into movie theaters around the world. It gives a close-up view of the performance that, while it can’t quite match the excitement of actually being present for a live performance, leaves you with something approaching the feeling of having been there.

Whether you are listening to the CD or watching the DVD, you can appreciate just how spectacular a score Andrew Lloyd Webber created. It has been belittled over the years for its repetition and for the supposed simplicity of some of its melodies. As a theatrical score, however, the range of styles from opera segments to music hall routines and rhapsodic love songs to fully-scored gothic drama is impressive and the repetition works dramatically. What Lloyd Webber’s detractors call “simplicity” is actually melodic purity which makes many of the musical lines memorable.

The cast of the 25th Anniversary concert is superb. Ramin Karimloo, who took over the title role in London in 2007 and originated the role in the sequel Love Never Dies, is a thoroughly tormented and demented Phantom and his voice is as strong and clear as the score requires. His Christine Daaé is Sierra Boggess whose range is as impressive as was that of Sarah Brightman for whom the role was written. Boggess sang the role in the Las Vegas production in 2006 and then left the work of Lloyd Webber to star on Broadway in The Little Mermaid. Her return to Lloyd Webber’s music was as Christine in the London production of Love Never Dies. Rounding out the leading triangle of the story is Hadley Fraser who bounces through the youngster-in-love segments of the story with flair.

Two other cast members stand out on the DVD/Blu-ray although neither makes quite as much impression on the audio CD. One is Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta, the diva replaced by the Phantom’s protege. More than any of the actresses I’ve seen play Carlotta, Ferguson makes her something more than an obstacle to be shoved aside. You can actually sympathize with her in her plight as a highly talented, hard working opera singer who earned her star status and was at least one reason for the success of the opera company but who has been hanging on to her position only because of the lack of competition.

Also impressive on the DVD/Blu-ray but, for obvious reasons, not on the audio CD, is Sergie Polunin, a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet who dances as the Slave Master in the ballet of the opera Hannibal which is being performed in the first act of the show, and then the Shepherd in the opera Il Muto in the second act. Gillian Lynne, the original choreographer, handled the choreography for this much larger cast. For the original she had had only five dancers for the ballet while here she uses a corps de ballet of 20. She built up the role of the Slave Master / Shepherd to highlight Polunin’s physique and his athletic prowess, especially his ability to leap.

The thrilling encore features the return of the original Christine, Sarah Brightman backed not by just one Phantom but by a series of some of the most famous actors to play the role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow, and Colm Wilkinson. The overall effect of the encore is thrilling although some of the singing demonstrates the rough edges of elapsed time and it might have benefited from a bit more rehearsal time.

Both the CD and the DVD present the audio’s extremely wide dynamic range without much compression. As a result, if you set the volume so that the loudest moments are comfortable, the quietest moments will be nearly inaudible. You may find it irritating that you need to “ride the volume control.” Both also end on a very strange note for the orchestra re-plays the entr’acte music up to its final, unresolved chord. In the show, that serves as a set-up for the thumping riff that opens the second act. Without that following riff, however, the final chord of the entr’acte simply hangs there awaiting the resolution that never comes.

DVD – $29.98
160 Minutes including a documentary on the anniversary staging
ASIN B005SFR7YE

Blu-ray – $39.98
160 Minutes including a documentary on the anniversary staging
ASIN B005SFS4ZU

CD – (2 disc)
Running time 2:34 over 22 tracks
Packaged with notes by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh
with color photographs
$16.48
ASIN B005M10VBA

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Godspell – The New Broadway Cast Recording

This aint your father’s Godspell.

Fifty-eight seconds into “Prepare Ye” it becomes clear that this is a new Godspell, one for the early 21st century rather than the mid-20th. The difference is dramatic when the band breaks loose with a thumping, driving, blast of energy which is way beyond what the original “rock musical” provided in the 1970s.

Then, the folk/rock feel seemed outlandish and shocking because it was so very un-Broadway. Now, The Great White Way is used to rock. Rock of Ages, American Idiot, Spring Awakening and Next to Normal shook up Broadway houses while many shows use rock along with other genres to establish contemporary credentials.

Of course, Godspell wasn’t the first “rock musical.” That distinction really belongs to Hair with its 1968 transfer to the Biltmore on Broadway. Jesus Christ Superstar also opened on Broadway before Godspell arrived. It also wasn’t really a book musical in the classic meaning of the term. It didn’t tell a linear story using songs and scenes designed to illustrate character and plot. It was, rather, a theatrical setting of a sermon.

It was also perhaps the most theatrically successful term paper in history. Well, actually, it was a master’s thesis. Twenty-two-year-old John-Michael Tebelak developed it at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he was studying Greek and Roman mythology. At Easter in 1970 he focused on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Later, fellow Carnegie Mellon alum Stephen Schwartz wrote the score we know today. With Schwartz’ score, the show opened off-Broadway and ran for five years before a Broadway production was mounted.

The current Broadway incarnation takes you back to the ambiance of off-Broadway by mounting the show in the least Broadway-ish Tony-eligible theater of them all, the 776-seat Circle in the Square Theatre in the basement of the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked continues its phenomenal run. (Thus, both the big house upstairs and the small one downstairs are filled with the songs of Stephen Schwartz.)

This arena-style theater in the round rocks to the sound of a pit band of six and a cast of ten. The musical environment becomes enveloping.

That feeling is well captured on this disc. “The Tower of Babble” can be a bit confusing as an intro. It is composed, after all, of snippets of Sartre and Socrates, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, Hegel and Edward Gibbon. But it does build from a solo to a full crowd scene in measured steps just as it does in the theater.

Then, in a moment reminiscent of another Schwartz project, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass for which Schwartz wrote most of the lyrics, cacophony is interrupted by beauty. In this case the interruption is the strong voice of Wallace Smith as John the Baptist leading into the rock-blast of “Prepare Ye.”

The series of parables and hymns set as musical scenes, which constitutes the essence of the show, takes over with some of the best known of the songs Schwartz composed using the lyrics of hymns as well as biblical quotations.

The big hit of the show is “Day by Day,” a setting of a twelfth century text from St. Richard of Chicester, which is given a lovely up-tempo rendition by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle.

“We Beseech Thee,” which Nick Blaemire turns into a romp, is actually based on the lyrics of Thomas Benson Pollock’s nineteenth century hymn.

“Save the People” uses the lyric of the hymn “The People’s Anthem” by nineteenth century English poet Ebenezer Elliott.

The tender “All Good Gifts” sung in a clean near falsetto by Telly Leung uses lyrics by Jane M. Campell’s nineteenth-century hymn.

Other songs use biblical quotes. The solo for Hunter Parrish’s Jesus, “Alas for You,” is Schwartz’ take on Matthew 23:13-17, while “Light of the World,” which cast member George Salazar leads as the finale of Act I, comes from Matthew 5:13-16.

The distinctive sound of this production is a result of new orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Michael Holland and the efforts of music director Charlie Alterman who leads the band from his keyboard position at one side of the stage. In the theater the guitarists are sprinkled throughout the seating area while the drum set is off to one side. While this recording isn’t a “surround sound” disc attempting to reconstruct that spatial relationship, it does a good job of blending sounds to create a full environment using the same six players.

The 40-page booklet does a fine job of providing an idea of the visual qualities of the show.  It also has useful notes by Schwartz explaining his role in developing the score (and giving full credit to Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger who wrote “By My Side” for the show before he joined the project) and Paul Shaffer, whose career has been linked with Godspell ever since the 1972 Toronto production. (The night I saw the show he had come over from his gig at The Late Show with David Letterman to join in the festivities. He doesn’t, however, appear on the recording.)

The relatively short recording is bolstered by two “bonus tracks.” One has Schwartz’ “Beautiful City” from the film version of Godspell sung here by John Ondrasik who is also known as Five for Fighting in the pop music world. The other is an after hours recording of “Learn Your Lessons Well” which you can compare to the version in Act I in which Celisse Henderson accompanies herself on the ukulele before switching over to a rocking electric guitar.

Godspell
The New Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records Catalog Number 8-4456
Running time 1 Hour over 18 tracks
List Price $14.99

Cleopatra – The Ballet by Claude-Michel Schönberg

Had this two-disc set been listed as the music of an unknown John Smith or Bob Jones I wouldn’t have asked for a copy to review for the readers of Theater Shelf. Ballet scores aren’t usually thought of as theater pieces but rather as classical music compositions which support storytelling through dance and design.

But the composer here is so well known to the theatrical world, and his output already occupies such a significant part of many theater lovers’ theater shelves, that it seemed like a good idea to check it out.

The composer is Claude-Michel Schönberg. His music graces our shelves in recordings of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. The more compulsive of us also include his Martin Guerre, La révolution Française and The Pirate Queen on our shelves.

He gave us “I Dreamed a Dream,” “One Day More,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “The Movie In My Mind,” “Sun and Moon,” The Last Night of the World” and “Live With Someone You Love.”

Those were wonderful theater songs, taking the concept of a “show tune” and elevating it in emotional capacity to the level that proponents of Grand Opera often think of as the exclusive realm of that art form, matching lyrics to soaring melodies and distinctive rhythms.

So what do you find when you get a full two acts of his music without lyrics?

You get a score that is consistently pretty and often dramatically demanding. It demands your attention not just to the melody that is playing out, but to the structure of the rhythms that establish the pace for a choreographer and the dancers to follow. It is a ballet, after all, and a ballet must tell much of its story in the tempos the dancers obey.

Ballet is also about massed movement and the spatial relationships of the characters on stage. The often simple plot – simple because it needs to be communicated without words – is heavy on primary concepts and emotions which dance can carry much more effectively than convoluted plot points.

In this case, as in many famous ballets, the plot follows a story already well known so the creators can concentrate on emotions. It is the story of Cleopatra and her relationships with, first, her brother Ptolemy who wouldn’t share the throne with her, then with Caesar, who takes her to Rome, and finally with Mark Anthony who sacrifices all for her.

On an audio-only recording, the visual half of the whole is missing. This is when a well-designed, well-written and fully illustrated accompanying booklet becomes important. The booklet for this release meets the minimum requirements but more information would be helpful. The package contains no notes explaining the origin of the project or the history of the collaboration between composer and choreographer. Such a note would have been welcomed given that the work is listed as Claude-Michel Schönberg & David Nixon’s Cleopatra, The Ballet. David Nixon? The booklet tells you he choreographed and co-directed the ballet but you need a Google search to determine that he is the artistic director of the Northern Ballet, the touring company based in Leeds in the north of England that commissioned the piece and which toured it throughout England last year.

The booklet does include nearly a dozen beautifully executed color photos. Seven of them, those by Bill Cooper, a former ballet dancer who specializes in production shots, give you a feel for the visual nature of the performance – set, costumes, lighting – and a hint of the sense of formality in the choreography and performance style. The other four are by Jason Tozer who captures the athleticism and extraordinary muscular control of Martha Leebolt who danced the title role and Tobias Batley who was her Mark Antony in the world premiere of the piece.

A very helpful synopsis in the booklet provides a description of each scene so, if you read along as you listen with care, you can conjure in your mind’s eye the events of Cleopatra’s short life.

For some of those scenes, the music clearly depicts the events called for in the plot. In the “Banquet for Mark Anthony” with its steady rhythm, lilting melody and percussion (tambourines, anyone?) you can picture the dancers providing entertainment for the guests. It takes nothing more than the title of the scene and the music itself to evoke an appreciation of its function in the story. In other scenes the relationship must be established through the portion of the work that isn’t on the discs. I doubt that many listeners would take the music in “Assassination of Ptolemy” to be the musicalization of a murder. It is the work of the choreographer and his dancers that make whatever connection the audience grasps.

Schönberg composed the score and collaborated in the orchestrations with John Longstaff of the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra. John Pryce-Jones, former music director of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, conducts thirty-four players of the Northern Ballet Sinfonia on this recording.

Schönberg’s Cleopatra won’t necessarily put you in mind of his major musicals. At times the music is much more sedate than in his musical plays and the format of a full-length dance piece gives him the luxury of taking his time developing musical ideas. Where specific songs in Les Misérables or Miss Saigon must deliver their message on the wings of a melody that blends with the lyrics, specific scenes in the ballet rely on the score more for atmosphere and mood while movement by the dancers places them into the context of the story.

Melodies here tend to be long lined and tie multiple scenes to each other, almost as if the structure of a song with lyrics forced Schönberg to concentrate melodic beauty while composing for a dance freed him to expand his musical ideas. As a result, his songs approach an exquisiteness which is absent from instrumental work such as the ballets Cleopatra or his earlier Wuthering Heights. Thus, don’t expect to hear a piece sounding like an overture or an instrumental adaptation of a song-laden score.

But this ballet isn’t another Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky or Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev either. The music is clearly Schönberg, even if not as richly beautiful as the lyric driven Schönberg. It offers a pleasant listen on its own and it is clear that it offered a structure to choreographer Nixon to create a full-length ballet. It would be interesting to be able to see just what he came up with to match Schönberg’s music.

—-

Cleopatra: The Ballet
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia
Two discs totaling 1:42 over 27 tracks
Booklet with photos and synopsis
First Night Records catalog ENCORECD14
ASIN: B004XIVT3M
US Price $34.85

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