Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The Wiz and Finding Neverland:
Inspired by Baum, Barrie & Believing

Here we are at the start of a new year, but we have some not brand new albums to cover before we get to a list of the Top Ten cast albums and vocal CDs. The ones considered at the moment all began with the imaginations of authors Baum and Barrie. The Land of Oz created by L. Frank Baum has inspired adaptations, sequels and, of course, the prequel Wicked. Among the imaginative reworkings of the original tale is The Wiz, recently broadcast live on TV and bringing forth an album of the score by that cast. The creative life and mind of playwright James M. Barrie is the focus of Finding Neverland, and this current Broadway attraction spawned not just a cast album but a CD by contemporary pop singers. There are life-affirming messages encouraging confidence and fortitude in both scores, demonstrated by songs like "If You Believe"(The Wiz) and "Believe" (Finding Neverland).

THE WIZ LIVE!
NBC LIVE BROADCAST CAST

Masterworks Broadway

This studio soundtrack is a made-in-advance companion piece to the recently seen version of The Wiz, NBC TV's latest effort to marry Broadway and broadcast with a cast that may fuse the best of both worlds: performances splashy enough to burst with big-personality theatricality and crackling energy, without overwhelming the small screen and quite different medium.

That rollicking score that embraces the beloved basics of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" while winking at it and clothing it in a soulful pop sheen makes for a strutting, showy kind of showcase. But don't lose hope, because the heart of the piece is intact, with some razzle-dazzle work, too. If only Stephanie Mills, the originator of this show's Dorothy, could have been a resident of a real-life Neverland and stayed young enough to reprise the role she aced once again! But we can take comfort in her being cast as Dorothy's Aunt Em and raising the bar right near the top with her thrillingly rich-voiced but emotionally grounded number, "The Feeling We Once Had." Frankly, everything else is a bit anticlimactic and some feelings The Wiz once had feel more epidermal. But there is plenty of professional polish throughout and if our current Dorothy, Shanice Williams, can't match the mix of fiercer dazzle and charismatic vulnerability her predecessor provided, she has an engaging vocal presence, contemporary melismatic stylings, and is endearing without sounding coy. That's a good set of assets.

Happily, the glee and vigor and sass all come through quite brightly on the (studio-tweaked) disc, with little lost in muddle with updated arrangements. While the song treatments don't pop in the same way the Broadway or sometimes meandering Motown movie version did, each of the three has a worthy and considered musical personality. There's fun and flavor when the spark hits the air and ignites. Manic diva performances are over-the-top style (Queen Latifah, awarded a gender-switch from usual casting in the title role; and Mary J. Blige infinitely more fun and unfettered stomping through threats as the short-tempered evil witch) are balanced by the gentler moments and the progeny of a vaudeville style for the spotlight numbers by the Scarecrow (a likeably boyish performance by Elijah Kelley), Lion (David Alan Grier, with some understated dignity, but surprisingly short on humor or ham), and the Tin Man (a versatile Ne-Yo, who makes the character quite engaging, with impressive timing and phrasing that make the lyrics really potent). Pop/R&B backup vocals are well used and well balanced, adding verve and a suggestion of community commiseration without overwhelming the lead vocals.

Whereas the acting styles and tone of the piece seemed rather all over the map on TV (with the script updates by Harvey Fierstein), just hearing the songs back to back on disc makes it all hang together better without some drain in the drive. Although the late Charlie Smalls is billed as the composer-lyricist for the score, three of its big numbers—"Home," "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," and "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard"—were created by Larry Kerchner in early stages of the show's development, for which he was given payment in a work-for-hire deal, with no credit, billing, or royalties. Singer Luther Vandross was indeed given credit for "Brand New Day" which sounds especially ebullient and appropriately celebrational here. And new to the score is the lively group number "We Got It," written by Ne-Yo, Harvey Mason Jr., and Stephen Oremus, with Elijah Kelley. Compositions for some instrumental pieces have always been credited to the original production's dance arranger, Timothy Graphenreed.

Certainly, this new trip to the Emerald City has an infectious bubbliness that makes it recommended listening. I truly enjoy it as an alternative interpretation, but not a consistent showstopper that tops or brings new insights or layers to an old favorite score. If the glow is a bit muted, it still does shine and sparkle quite a bit, like that Emerald City and those marvelous magical previously witch-owned slippers Dorothy wears to "Ease on Down the Road." Come along for the jivey journey.

FINDING NEVERLAND
BROADWAY CAST ALBUM

Republic Records

While Finding Neverland as a show has had its own dramas off stage, and various elements besides the score have gotten knocks and mixed reception, the joy in owning a cast album is that often the strongest elements are what we get to solely focus upon. Despite some numbers that fall on the preachy side or suffer from "Power Ballad-itis" in delivering the messages and morals, there's warmth in its heart of hearts in its best moments. If perchance you've mostly been exposed to the pop/rock versions on the other CD of some of its songs, it's important to know that this is the gentler, more theatre-friendly and more thoughtful Neverland experience.

There's excitement and drama to be found in Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's score, musically supervised by David Chase (who co-produced the CD with Kennedy), with the talents of Mary-Mitchell Campbell as music director/first keyboard player and Simon Hale providing orchestrations for a 15-person ensemble (many play multiple instruments).

The 21-track album hangs together pretty well in the episodic story following the challenges in the personal and professional life of writer J.M. Barrie as he goes from a period where he is in a creative rut and troubled marriage to having his heart and imagination opened up by meeting the brothers whose young energy and sorrows spark his own child-like side. Their camaraderie leads to his story about Peter Pan in the land of eternal youth and non-stop adventure and an idyllic life (except for those pesky pirates, added, we're told, at the suggestion of the theatre impresario/producer). While the play and the film that preceded it took liberties with facts and chronology, the basic "story behind the story" remains a fascinating and touching one. Despite deaths, divorce, infidelity, the spoilsport grandmother of the boys, and professional failure, the tale is life affirming. And the songs we hear bring that home.

Joy, tempered by caution, abounds. True, curmudgeons and anti-Pans who don't understand that growing up and focusing on scoring money and societal rank are all overrated, will scoff at the pro-fantasy escapes as overly glorified and "silly." But those who still know the value of getting lost in make-believe as pure fun will be on board. And what is theatre immersion if not suspending disbelief and letting ourselves pretend that a story is really happening for a while? The song titled "Believe" says it succinctly and its lyric is embraced by the performers.

While his accent is just O.K. (it seems to drift in and out), Matthew Morrison gives a serious and committed singing/acting performance on disc. He is a participant on two-thirds of the tracks, but seems indefatigable, even if one wishes the songs gave him even more chance for variety. It does get a bit heavy on the "intense" side for a man with a childlike spirit who, as written, might benefit from more truly carefree and breezy moments. Even when spouting positivity, there's a kind of heavy touch. His best moments feature tender interaction with the boys and their widowed mother with whom he becomes a vulnerable romantic. Their duet "What You Mean to Me" is openly declarative, with ardor blooming in the voices. As the mom, Sylvia, Laura Michelle Kelly brings a genteel manner, but not a stuffy one, and her single-minded dedication to her sons and then connection to Barrie bring out the appropriate loving emotions and forthrightness. Her sweet "Sylvia's Lullaby" is a particularly lovely small moment in the score.

Alas, the rich-voiced and commanding Carolee Carmello, as Sylvia's mainly stern mother, is frustratingly underused in singing time and vocal challenges. In the finale, when her character warms up, we finally get some of her talents poured on with the electricity she can bring to material when given something to work with, rather than the brief barking and sniping heard in the dismissive group number "The Circus of Your Mind," an attack on Barrie by all parties. One wouldn't be surprised if he then voluntarily walked Captain Hook's plank had it been real or already invented by him.

Kelsey Grammer, who doubles as his imagined Hook and Barrie's theatrical sponsor Charles Frohman, offers his suitably customary bluster and superciliousness. But it's great to hear him cut loose so cheerily with the encouragement for his repertory company to "Play" in rehearsing the new, untested play about the freewheeling Lost Boys in Neverland and their leader, the soon-to-be iconic Peter Pan. ("Can you remember back when you were young? ... The world is so mysterious and wild/ When you start to see it through the eyes of a child). The number builds as the actors get into the spirit, even the oh-so-serious one seeking details for motivation and wondering what, emotionally, is meant by being a "Lost Boy." Another version of the delightful "Play" comes at the end as a bonus track, another frolicking romp led by two ensemble members, Rory Donovan and Mary Page Nance, who came up with it on a cast retreat. Minus the plot's set-up and cajoling, and adding an irresistible banjo, it's even more of a high-spirited contagious celebration.

The children add a crucial loveable tone. Their vocals are graceful, majorly endearing, and refreshingly unpretentious. Their natural brightness prevails, but they are well schooled in their lessons—very "together" and disciplined behind the bubbling joie de vivre. In the case of the character of young Peter, who is the saddest and most resistant to the idea of pretending as panacea, there's more depth to the writing. (Unfortunately, the credits list the boys who share the roles but not which sings which role on the recording.)

The booklet contains the lyrics, 13 photos of the production, a plot synopsis, and comments by members of the creative staff. Although the score is somewhat uneven, and marred by some unfortunate lazy false rhymes, and there is some "push" to the messages that are arguably stated with some overkill, the majority of the material is winning and enjoyable.

FINDING NEVERLAND: THE ALBUM
VARIOUS ARTISTS

Republic Records

While Finding Neverland: The Album, featuring contemporary pop/rock music personalities and one track by the musical's leading man, Matthew Morrison, is kind of a companion album, it's really a horse of a different color. While this album and the cast recording are both on Republic Records and present many of the same numbers from the Gary Barlow/Elliot Kennedy score, the interpretations are quite different, by design. And each album has songs that the other does not have. Beyond those differences seen by a glance at the track lists, lyrics don't always match in show numbers that appear here. Sometimes, the changes are minor or the choruses are not quite in the same sequence, or have sections that are repeated more—or are not sung at all.

In the case of "We Own the Night," the selection performed by Morrison, the lyric is almost completely different, the pieces only sharing the melody, his robust singing style, and the sung title phrase (on the same notes and ending many sections). In the show, it's a group number about having nighttime adventures while others chat at a formal dinner party; here it is a very adult and lusty affair. The show's songwriters have provided him with images of restlessness and longing so he can sing lines such as "Need you under my skin and in the air that I breathe/ To wake alone without you is too hard to conceive." Still, it's a blessing and relief to have Morrison aboard as the sole cast representative, seemingly comfortable in his overlapping "roles" of character and ingratiatingly gutsy rock star.

The many odes to flight (literal airborne adventure or flights of fancy) often are enveloped with a kind a space-age pop equivalent in soundscaping that might be the latter-day equivalent of the trendy electronic experimentation that cluttered early stereo once upon a vinyl time or an agenda of style over substance that makes emotional human voices and personae far from Priority Number One.

Indeed, there's a sense of material being repackaged and reshaped, "selling" it as very engineered studio technological territory that sounds as far from innocence or old-school Broadway style and theatrical ambiance as Neverland is far from Scotland (where Barrie was born).

Curiously, the booklet contains several full-page, full-color photos of Morrison and castmates, without identifying any of them, or indeed even acknowledging that the pics are from a stage show called Finding Neverland or stating point blank that such a thing exists, let alone is currently on stage or ever was. Very odd. Fortunately, all the lyrics are included in the booklet, because some are tough to catch with the less-than-ideal diction of some of the pop singers who tend to slide around the melodies and embroider them with tics and gasps or are competing with many curtains of studio sound whipping around them.

It is always an eye-opener to go back to the source—meaning the songwriter—and we get that chance here with a quite creditable Gary Barlow handling of "Something About This Night." It soars and has bite, with its plot-specific references to what's on the line on a theatrical opening night where stakes and emotions are high. But wait! The lyric he sings here is a bitter one about worries and negative reactions from self-satisfied, self-appointed critics, not the the more optimistic words heard on the cast album.

Newcomers to the score who are used to musical theatre craft and songs that build characters and their moods from a starting point to a climactic revelation will find choruses whose lyrics are repeated exactly (sometimes three times), restating the ideas, verbatim verbiage, and title phrases over and over so that we are not getting much that's fresh or developed after the middle of a track. Instead, we notice the false rhymes, and even more so the words that reappear from song to song. In this mix of songs, the most prominent are references to reality (and its gloomy omnipresent downsides), fantasy and flying, stars and skies, comfort and enlightenment.

One would get few real specifics of the play's story because eschewed entirely are most plot numbers that have references to specific situations or are definitely child-focused, such as the score's confrontations (Captain Hook as his darker counterpoint in Barrie's mind, the interaction with the theatre troupe, the lullabye and the boys playing pirates in the park). Or, the words more tied to such moments are replaced. Thus, most of what's left or tweaked feels vague and generalized, the words potentially applicable to a wider range of life experiences and relationships.

"When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground," in the context of the show, has tension, and is about characters trying to convince each other of the validity of a point of view. In the stage show, the repetition of words gets aural variety from different voices in its two appearances—male and female adults and children. When characters start to share a viewpoint, the repeating is justified and exciting. But, as a whinnying and wan solo for Ellie Goulding, it is more anemic, seemingly both overstatingly self-absorbed and then preachy. Here and in other numbers, the only "communication" is what's hoped for in many stand-alone songs: that the singer's delineation of feelings will be something that the listener can identify with.

A quite striking "Stars" by the highly skilled harmony vocal group Pentatonix is an album highlight. The much briefer section is also heard on the cast album, called "We're All Made of Stars" there, but this longer concept features some articulate lyrics too philosophical and mature to be appropriate to be part of the basic item sung by just the young boys in the stage piece. Their interweaving voices and elegance bring a high-class sensibility and integrity to their number that invites repeat listening, whereas others overstay their welcome just due to the hard-hitting (or simply anticlimactic) redundancy of "here we go again" words and amped-up accompaniment.

There are plenty of angst-ridden moments and balm-like/feel-good Hallmark homilies to go around. But a few of the pieces survive rather well with sincerity (and show lyrics!) intact. Kudos to Nick Jonas, who gets some admirable juice from "Believe," one of the mantra-like commands/messages. He is less mannered and thus more natural-sounding than others, cutting through the gauze and velveteen. Jennifer Lopez and Trey Songz also do well on their duet "What You Mean to Me," with some palpable chemistry in their interaction and delivering some sweetness to the embrace of mutual appreciation. "Neverland," whose lyric ends with the musical's exact title, gets more sturm und drang in Zendaya's overwrought rendering, but the basics about imagining and then finding and wanting to share a place of refuge come through.

For the pop fan, and certainly for followers of some of the big-name artists here, this is a bounty of lamenting diversions, wounded yearning (with some built-up, built-in scar tissue) and pseudo-ethereal ethos. The "alternate universe" of the Broadway score can be somewhat interesting, occasionally intriguing, and often transparently commercial as hard-sell pounding song ideas home. To be clear, it's not a throbbingly percussive, hard-rock set of screamers; gushing and string-laden, very earnest self-affirmations via wailing is more the style of persistence. But those with no deep interest in the theatrical property will likely not care that some numbers don't appear on the cast album or in the show itself.

John Legend is a bit of a breath of fresh air with some welcome maturity and nuance with "My Imagination." A track called "Anywhere But Here" (cut from the score now, but heard in the 2014 A.R.T. Cambridge, Massachusetts, production) has Christina Aguilera singing one chorus over and over, and then transplants a section of "Neverland" for the middle. Jon Bon Jovi's most welcome upbeat "Beautiful Day" is musically the cousin of what is on stage in the children's brief strong-beat marching song as they play pirates outdoors, alluding to the weather which is the main focus in the lyric sung by the rock veteran. Note that the track that sticks out like a sore thumb, "Are We Gonna Play?," sung by Rita Ora and Sage the Gemini which the show's writers had several other hands contributing to, otherwise bears no relation to "Play" from the musical wherein actors are encouraged to get in touch with their G-rated childhood memories and nursery rhymes. This "playtime" includes phrases such as "Let's get it on" and "Steer your hips like a car" and the grammar-challenged "I feel like you the one" and "We ain't getting any younger/ Can't do no wrong." (It took eight people to write this "opus.")

Harmlessly happy guilty pleasure or should guilty parties be thrown overboard, Captain Hook? In the ever-challenging world of art and commerce and trying to broaden Broadway far to a wider audience, any crossover reinterpretation is worth noting in these days when musical theatre material is reshaped for another market as a point of entry. Like some Disney soundtracks that offer bonus tracks of well-known modern-day singers taking on key songs, the goal may be obvious but understandable and sometimes fruitful and entertaining. When the score is high-class caviar turned to sugared paste, purists may be most alarmed (the disco versions of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" or the Guys and Dolls score, anyone?). Was the rap sampling snippet of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" reason to rejoice? Is it for art for chart? Or is Finding Neverland more of a pop-friendly score by pop writers just taken a few steps further into commercialism and away from the stage? Proceed with caution. Or abandon. Depending on your perspective and fondness for pop music electricity.


- Rob Lester


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