Moody, messy love's so 'Normal'

'Next to Normal'

Original Broadway cast

(Ghostlight Records) *** 1/2

This album can be difficult to live with. It demands close attention; it gets in your face; it yanks your emotions all over the place. But, hey, who ever said love was easy?

A by-no-means-typical musical, this year's Tony winner for best score would be more precisely described as a drama told in music. It makes us part of a family losing its grip on normalcy as its mother disappears behind a curtain of depression and delusion, about to take everyone else with her. The music by Tom Kitt (no longer jinxed by the 2006 flop "High Fidelity") throbs with moods as variable as those experienced by the characters -- expressed as bar-band rock, classical filigree, Elton John-ish fervency, Burt Bacharach pop and so on. At once conversational and poetic, the lyrics by Brian Yorkey distill complex feelings into a few deft words, as when the mother, achingly rendered by Tony winner Alice Ripley, tells her distraught daughter, "You know I love you," pauses, then clarifies: "I love you as much as I can."

Time and again, voices overlap, evoking the interconnectedness that, for good or ill, makes every emotion a shared family experience. Steadfastness is shown. Hope is grasped. Each day is a chance to be taken.


Sly, slick fun with the big green ogre

'Shrek: The Musical'

Original Broadway cast

(Decca Broadway) ** 1/2

The story focuses on a pea-soup-hued ogre who wins a princess' heart when an accidental fart leads to a giggling game of one-upmanship. So the typical purchaser, you might surmise, is someone who still receives a weekly allowance.

Yet this DayGlo-bright stage adaptation of the popular animated film is not devoid of grown-up delights. The music is by Jeanine Tesori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie"), whose gifts include an ability to mimic vintage song styles while also imprinting a tune with her distinctive zing. To this antic mash-up of fairy tales, she contributes a similarly gleeful Cuisinarting of music styles, including folk, children's music, Motown, and the classic sounds of Broadway and Hollywood.

Kid-centric wisecracks pepper the lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (a Pulitzer winner for "Rabbit Hole"), yet flying under the radar is just enough sly wordplay to indicate which minority groups one might equate with the fairy-tale characters made to feel freakish by conformist society.

This isn't "Into the Woods," certainly, but it's hard to resist when performed by crystalline-voiced Sutton Foster as the girly princess who's also a bit of a tomboy and robust Brian d'Arcy James as the green blob who's unexpectedly dashing.


'9 to 5' only good for one or two

'9 to 5: The Musical'

Original Broadway cast

(Dolly Records) **

The best of Dolly Parton's songs for this adaptation of the 1980 movie are the ones that grin with the unapologetic self-affirmation that has been a hallmark of her showbiz career. These include the hushed but determined "I Just Might," which was swapped in after the show's L.A. tryout as a statement of purpose for the story's glass-ceiling-challenged heroines. Also: "Backwoods Bar- bie," the country-cheerful/look-beyond-the-surface throwdown that Parton herself has recorded and has given here to the character she played in the movie.

But that genuineness goes missing when the songs get too big -- when they're expected to deliver big, socko moments, as in the Act 1 closer, "Shine Like the Sun," which builds and builds yet delivers little honest emotion. The show is set to close soon after just four months on Broadway. What might've happened if it had stayed truer to its heart?


Revivals don't make their mark

'West Side Story'

New Broadway cast

(Masterworks Broadway) ** 1/2


New Broadway cast

(Ghostlight Records) **

The last Broadway season included revivals of two landmark musicals, now for sale alongside numerous previous versions.

The new "West Side Story" is notable, of course, for having its Puerto Rican characters deliver some lyrics in Spanish, particularly Maria's giddy "I Feel Pretty," Anita and Maria's emotional back and forth in "A Boy Like That" and the Sharks' portion of the "Tonight" Quintet (translations by "In the Heights' " Lin-Manuel Miranda). There's little innovation to be heard elsewhere, however. Vocally, the album peaks in the perplexed concern that supporting actress Tony winner Karen Olivo wrings from Anita's "A Boy Like That" -- an emotional truthfulness that no one else quite summons. Otherwise, the album's most electric moments all belong to the 30-piece orchestra, under Patrick Vaccariello's baton, as it creates the jazzy, edgy portent of the 1957 musical's big rumble/dance sequences.

Similarly, the Tony-winning revival of "Hair" doesn't offer much that wasn't already available. The performers have fun with the spacey, sexy energy of this Vietnam-era plea for a racist, complacent-yet-aggressive, warmongering society to turn to togetherness and love. Vocally, however, the sound is merely pretty when it needs to be defiantly urgent. Purchase instead the 2005 release, from the same label, of an Actors' Fund of America benefit that features such dynamos as Jennifer Hudson, as well as laugh-out-loud surprises from the likes of Lea DeLaria.


'Ages': hair-rock minus rowdiness

'Rock of Ages'

Original Broadway cast

(New Line Records) **

This unlikely Broadway resident, which got its start in L.A., is a pile-up of hair-rock mainstays by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Journey and Poison, attached to a purpose-built plot about a boy and a girl chasing their dreams on the Sunset Strip in 1987.

The idea, really, is just to glory all over again in such hard-driving anthems as Starship's "We Built This City" and such power-ballads as Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You." Great. So let's get rowdy. But the singers don't. Even "American Idol" finalist Constantine Maroulis, the most authentic rocker of the bunch, rarely risks the full-out shredding of vocal cords necessary to propel these songs. Still more of a buzz-kill: inane dialogue that intrudes into most every song.

Post-listening, the songs likely will stick with you for a while, but you might find that the voices in your head belong not to the Broadway singers but to the original artists, as your brain frantically re-uploads the good stuff.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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