Xanadu On Broadway (Original Cast Recording)

Xanadu On BroadwayI promised myself – and you – that I’d try not to have too much of a stick up my ass when it came to reviewing this CD, which includes the musical highlights and key dialogue moments of the Broadway musical revival of 1980’s Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu, which is perhaps best remembered for its own soundtrack than anything it accomplished on the big screen. So up front, let me acknowledge that listening to the cast recording album of a stage musical is perhaps not the best way to gauge the entire production in terms of narrative or artistic value. But even bearing that in mind, and admittedly biased by my affection for at least the musical part of the source material, the cast CD for Xanadu On Broadway gives me a view of the show as a mean-spirited train wreck.

And there’s really no need for it to be. There are some renditions of the songs from the movie here that are quite surprisingly good, from a musical standpoint. The actress/vocalist who’s stepping into Olivia Newton-John’s shoes for this production has the pipes to carry it off (which is actually quite a compliment – if you weren’t around in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I’m not sure you can appreciate how omnipresent Olivia Newton-John was in pop culture, with a string of hits and, of course, Grease to her name. And she could (and can still) sing. Anyone stepping into a role originated by that lady had better be able to bring something to the table in terms of singing. This production’s actress does an admirable job…at least where the singing’s concerned.

Where I start to get seriously disgruntled with Xanadu On Broadway is with the dialogue that points toward the show being not even remotely fond of its source material, but still trying to make a buck off of it. I understood, going in, that this was a satirical take on Xanadu the movie. Where I was taken aback was with the album’s dialogue scenes making it very clear that it isn’t a well-observed, fond-but-funny satire. Whoever wrote the script to this thing seems to be making not-at-all-kind sport of the source material. It’s almost as if the writer felt that the original movie had caused intense pain, and they now wanted to repay it with interest. Jabs are made at everything from ’80s fashion to the addition of an Australian actress in an otherwise American cast (the actress stepping into the character of Kira proclaims “And I’ll sport an Australian accent!” in a stereotypical mock-Aussie accent of her own). Someone had an axe – likely an entire arsenal of axes – to grind with Xanadu, and this seems to be the payback. It reminded me of some of the low points of post-Joel-Hodgson MST3K, when the show’s satirical sense of humor seemed prone to going much darker than what I’d grown accustomed to.

But…I’ll admit that I’m judging a whole production from a few select slices of recorded dialogue that are only on the album to give context to certain songs, and Xanadu On Broadway seems to be a bona fide hit on stage, so maybe I should stick to discussing the merits of the music itself. “All Over The World” and “Magic” are competent enough live renditions, though in the latter the lead actress is trying to push the Aussie accent schtick a bit too much; that’s the only thing preventing “Magic” from being the best song on here, because other than the exaggerated accent gag, it’s almost a dead ringer for the original.

“Evil Woman” not only never had anything to do with Xanadu, but it’s done in an extremely silly style, though it can be rather entertaining if you’re in the right mood. The duet “Suddenly”, originally sung by Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard, is another runner-up for best performance on the album, except that the Aussie gag again rears its head both here and in another duet, “Whenever You’re Away From Me”. I realize that I’m really criticizing a requirement of the script – the actress is just doing what the script says – but it has a ripple effect on the musical performances themselves, so it’s a bit difficult for me to just let it go.

The strangest number on the original movie soundtrack, “Dancin'”, was a jarring but entertaining collision between a ’40s Andrews Sisters-style song and modern rock (provided by the Tubes in the original recording); it’s my runaway favorite from Xanadu On Broadway by miles. It had to be a difficult enough song to record with its wildly divergent styles, and if they do it this well on stage, it’s easily the highlight of the show.

Another unrelated-to-Xanadu ELO chestnut is up next, “Strange Magic”, given the same silly reading (primarily by the same two characters – two sister muses of Kira’s, invented for the play, who scheme against her – who sing “Evil Woman”). “All Over The World” follows this, and it’s one of the better performances on the disc, even if some of the ’80s studio effects from the original ELO song are exaggerated for amusing effect. I was equally amused to hear the lyrics’ reference to Shard End – the Birmingham neighborhood where Jeff Lynne grew up – remained intact. It was already a musical non-sequitur, and now it’s preserved on stage night after night. “Don’t Walk Away” is quite different from the original, but so help me, I actually like the adaptation and the performance – it’s done so well that it’s the kind of thing that almost makes me want to see the show.

“Fool”, a song featured in the original movie but not its soundtrack, falls victim to the Aussie treatment again – a pity because the rest of it is almost spot-on. “The Fall”, which in its original incarnation is one of ELO’s most criminally underrated songs, is actually a nice adaptation and well performed. “Suspended In Time” wind up being the Newton-John song least affected by the accent gag, and it’s easily the best solo piece on this album. That’s chased down by what may be the strangest song on the whole disc, the Olivia Newton-John chestnut “Have You Never Been Mellow?”, which – like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” – had nothing to do with Xanadu originally. Wrapping things up is an instrumentally listenable version of “Xanadu” itself, but again, the stereotypical Aussie accent just blows it for me. Seriously, did anyone even listen to the original songs here?

In the end, I’m giving Xanadu On Broadway a very charitable 2 out of 4 stars. If I had a little graphical button ready for 1 1/2 stars out of 4, I’d give it that instead. The thing is, there are a few performances in here that do, in fact, sound like a good way to take the original songs – whether those were done by ELO or ONJ – to the stage. There are others that I’d describe as train wrecks if I was feeling particularly kind. But by all means, take this review with a grain of salt – the music may all play out spectacularly against the set and costumes and choreography (I mean, who can resist roller disco?) But purely as a listening experience – and given the snippets of plot imparted by the included dialogue – I came away from listening to Xanadu On Broadway on CD feeling like it’s a lamentable misstep – lamentable because one plot point (the Australian accent gag) derailed some otherwise damned fine performances.

2 out of 4I’ve admitted that I’m no great fan of musicals, and perhaps too close to the source material, but then again, I loved most of Lynne Me Your Ears, an ELO/Jeff Lynne tribute which put some of Lynne’s music through some startling transformations. But those reinterpretations were done in a spirit of genuine admiration, not a snarlingly sarcastic parody. And that, perhaps more than any silly voice you’ll here hear, is what mars Xanadu On Broadway the most.

Order this CD

  1. I’m Alive (4:03)
  2. Magic (3:03)
  3. Evil Woman (2:41)
  4. Suddenly (3:38)
  5. Whenever You’re Away From Me (4:00)
  6. Dancin’ (2:28)
  7. Strange Magic (2:01)
  8. All Over The World (3:17)
  9. Don’t Walk Away (3:38)
  10. Fool (1:27)
  11. The Fall (2:02)
  12. Suspended In Time (2:56)
  13. Have You Never Been Mellow? (3:24)
  14. Xanadu (4:23)

Released by: P.S. Classics
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 43:01

Xena: Warrior Princess – The Bitter Suite

Xena: Warrior Princess - The Bitter SuiteEveryone seems to have done a musical now, but Xena’s Bitter Suite was one of the first and, in terms of both story and music, still possibly the best. Joseph LoDuca’s music caters less to the series’ usual musical sensibilities, shifting instead into lavish big-screen-musical territory. There’s something almost Disney-esque about The Bitter Suite, but we’re talking old-school Disney – Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs And Broomsticks Disney musical style, not this newfangled Every Male Lead Suddenly Sings Elton John Songs In Peabo Bryson’s Voice business that seems to pervade the lion’s share – pun pitifully intended – of Disney’s modern output.

Even more gloriously, it’s refreshing to see that three of the story’s key players do their own singing. Renee O’Connor was dubbed by Susan Wood for her musical scenes, and Hudson Leick (Callisto) got to lip-synch to Michelle NiCastro’s vocals for her character. (NiCastro, incidentally, is a veteran of some of those newfangled Disney musicals. Small world, eh?) But Lucy Lawless, Ted “Joxer” Raimi and the late, great Kevin “Ares” Smith sang for themselves, thank you very much, and between my constant admiration for his performance as the god of war and the fact that he may be the best vocalist of the bunch, I’ve got to hand Kevin Smith some mad props here. From the slinky, seductive tones of “Melt Into Me” to his snide remark “ding dong, the bitch is dead!”, Smith comes out very much the unheralded star of this show. On TV, he also looked most at ease in this episode. Kevin, we lost you far, far too soon.

The CD as a whole is a collection of the musical numbers and highlights from the score (including the wildly percussive cues for the brutal opening sequences), with just enough dialogue to preserve something of the flow of the story. If there’s a single low point, it’s the slightly overwrought “Hearts Are Hurting”, a song divided into two parts during which Xena and Gabrielle work out a major conflict that had built up between the two characters since the beginning of the third season (of which the less said, the better, frankly). The vocals from both Susan Wood and Lucy Lawless are a bit strained, and the music stops just short of being risible – it’s actually the show’s theme song, slowed down a lot and with lyrics. Really the low point of both the CD and the 4 out of 4episode – and it should’ve been, could’ve been the high point.

That aside, The Bitter Suite is outstanding, and the CD tells the story nicely – since it’s a musical, it’s almost the episode in audio form, and not much is left out except for some non-musical dialogue (the CD has roughly the same running time as the episode, in fact). Good stuff.

Order this CD

  1. The Sweat Hut / Slapped Out Of It / Xena’s In Town (4:42)
  2. Horrible Drag / On The Edge / Song Of The Fool (5:09)
  3. What’s Still Unwritten… (Song Of Illusia) / Little Ditties / Into The Chandra / Joxer The Mighty / Prepping Gabby (5:17)
  4. War And Peace / Gab Is Stabbed (5:52)
  5. Melt Into Me / Let Go (2:28)
  6. Dead? / Hearts Are Hurting (Part 1) (2:35)
  7. The Deliverer (4:07)
  8. Hate Is The Star (Song Of The Torment) / Hearts Are Hurting (Part 2) (5:42)
  9. The Way Out / The Love Of Your Love / Passing Through (7:10)

Released by: Varese Sarabande
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 42:55

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds“a ‘Lights Out’ television show, and ‘Amos and Andy’ on the radio”
– Gene Cotton, “Like a Sunday in Salem”

When people think of rock operas, they normally think of Tommy, Ziggy Stardust, I Robot, maybe even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the movie version of which nearly killed the careers of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.) Who would have thought that “War Of The Worlds” would have been ripe for rock opera? Jeff Wayne did.

Released in the United States in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds features movie legend Richard Burton as The Journalist, with performances by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Chris Thompson of Mannford Mann’s Earth Band, David Essex, and others.

The plot is a fairly standard retelling of the original H.G. Wells novel set at the turn of the century. The Martians invade. We don’t have a chance.

Richard Burton’s reporter is one of the first people on the scene when the cylinders begin landing on the Earth, and he wanders through the English countryside following the devastation caused by the Martians. For the most part, Burton provides a strong performance. At times though, he seems detached, as though he’s reading words on a page, not witnessing “the rout of civilization, the massacre of mankind.”

Julie Covington steals the show as Beth, the wife of Parson Nathaniel, who is played by Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Her crisp, impassioned voice coupled with her lyrics in “The Spirit Of Man” provide the psychological and emotional underpinning of the entire double album, and provides a counterpoint to Lynott’s over-the-top performance.

Musically, JWMVWotW betrays its mid-1970s roots. It’s heavy with synthesizers and tends to fall into a disco-like beat from time to time. But there’s a little bit of something for everyone. More than 20 years later it still sounds fresh. Just as with any good opera, the music establishes moods and becomes an uncredited actor in the proceedings, filling in gaps that aren’t spoken, sung, or otherwise voiced.

The initial uncapping of one of the Martian cylinders and the attack of the heat ray are absolutely hair-raising, and the spread of the red weed is decidedly eerie. At first, the voice of the Martians is goofy and somewhat annoying. But soon, it becomes terrifying and ominous.

“Forever Autumn” (which was released as a single) and “Thunder Child” are the centerpieces that bring hope 4 out of 4and ultimately hopelessness. Later, with “happy” arrangements of most of the musical themes, David Essex explains his vision of a “Brave New World”, which is both stirring and sad.

Overall, JWMVWotW is a nearly flawless synthesis of a strong narrative and an equally strong musical score.

Order this CD

    Disc one: The Coming Of The Martians

  1. The Eve Of The War (9:07)
  2. Horsell Common and the Heat Ray (11:36)
  3. Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine (10:37)
  4. Forever Autumn (7:42)
  5. Thunder Child (6:07)
    Disc two: The Earth Under The Martians

  1. Red Weed part 1 (5:53)
  2. Spirit Of Man (11:38)
  3. Red Weed part 2 (5:25)
  4. The Artilleryman Returns (1:27)
  5. Brave New World (12:15)
  6. Dead London (8:35))
  7. Epilogue part 1 (2:31)
  8. Epilogue part 2 – NASA (1:50)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: 1978
Disc one total running time: 45:10
Disc two total running time: 49:36

Alan Parsons Project – Freudiana

Alan Parsons Project - FreudianaTruly a shame that this album is narely impossible to find – it’s really one of the Project’s best. It was also the last hurrah for Eric Woolfson, co-founder of the group and instantly recognizable vocalist on such past hits as “Eye In The Sky” and “Time”. Some surprising guests are also assembled, such as Leo Sayer and Kiki Dee (well, she had to find some kind of work after that Elton John duet!). It’s a concept album – no surprise there! – and the recording of a musical about the life, influences and legacy of Sigmund Freud. That’s really no surprise either, but more of an It’s about time! The Project’s 4 out of 4grandiose theatrical sound, with their slower pieces especially begging for a play to surround them, lends itself to the stage musical sound well. Worth seeking out! The reason it’s so hard to find in many areas is because of its European-only release, a baffling marketing strategy if ever I saw one, though I’m not sure the Freudiana musical has ever played in the States, so that may explain it.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. The Nirvana Principle (3:45)
  2. Freudiana (6:21)
  3. I Am A Mirror (4:07)
  4. Little Hans (3:15)
  5. Dora (3:51)
  6. Funny You Should Say That (4:36)
  7. You’re On Your Own (3:54)
  8. Far Away From Home (3:12)
  9. Let Yourself Go (5:26)
  10. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (3:14)
  11. The Ring (4:23)
  12. Sects Therapy (3:40)
  13. No One Can Love You Better Than Me (5:41)
  14. Don’t Let The Moment Pass (3:41)
  15. Upper Me (5:16)
  16. Freudiana – instrumental reprise (3:43)
  17. Destiny (0:51)
  18. There But For The Grace Of God (5:56)

Released by: Parlophone Odeon
Release date: 1990
Total running time: 74:52

Chess – original cast studio recording

Chess soundtrackSeldom if ever do I get a whole album just for one song (I much prefer that to CD singles, since they are not really much cheaper and I might like something else on it). But this is a unique situation – I got a double CD for one song. The song in question is, of course, Murray Head’s recording of “One Night In Bangkok”, one of those guilty pleasures of radio from my childhood. The rest of it is not bad, but I’ve got this mental block regarding musical theatre – I mean, it’s been a long time since I just broke into song in the middle of some intense moment – that keeps me from really getting into this sort of thing. Not to say that no musical has ever spawned a good song, a lot of them have, it’s just that I prefer some semblance of realism in my entertainment! Really, unless you too are just dying to hear this mysterious one-off radio hit, I’d only recommend this one for fans of the musical itself. The story concerns an international chess masters’ 3 out of 4tournament which culminates in a U.S.-Soviet face-off, with the American chess master’s aide falling for her boss’ opponent over the course of the play. If you try to read political allegory into this play too heavily, you’ll probably come out feeling a bit silly. It’s best taken with a grain of salt (and, these days, a nostalgic yen for the days of the Cold War!).

Order this CD

    Disc one:

  1. Merano (7:00)
  2. The Russian and Molokov / Where I Want To Be (6:22)
  3. Opening Ceremony (9:20)
  4. Quartet: A Model of Decorum and Tranquility (2:18)
  5. The American and Florence / Nobody’s Side (5:27)
  6. Chess (5:45)
  7. Mountain Duet (4:43)
  8. Florence Quits (2:54)
  9. Embassy Lament (1:30)
  10. Anthem (3:04)
    Disc two:

  1. Bangkok / One Night in Bangkok (5:02)
  2. Heaven Help My Heart (3:30)
  3. Argument (1:51)
  4. I Know Him So Well (4:15)
  5. The Deal (No Deal) (3:54)
  6. Pity the Child (5:29)
  7. Endgame (10:50)
  8. Epilogue: You and I / The Story of Chess (10:30)

Released by: RCA/Victor
Release date: 1984
Disc one total running time: 48:23
Disc two total running time: 45:21