Two new theatre albums: “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” cast recording and Lisa Howard’s solo album

I downloaded, via iTunes, two wonderful new theatre-related albums yesterday: the Broadway cast recording of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Lisa Howard’s new solo album, “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” So impressed was I by both (yay awkwardly structured sentences!), I wanted to rave about them here.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown cast recording
From the reviews and internet chatter I’d read, I’d gathered Women on the Verge was a very disappointing musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 international hit film of the same name. The musical, produced by Lincoln Center, was one of the most anticipated shows of the year for 2010, mostly due to the powerhouse female cast, which included Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott and Laura Benanti (not to mention de’Adre Aziza, who’s currently giving a sassy performance in Steppenwolf’s The Hot L Baltimore).

I can’t say much about the show, since I didn’t see it, but the cast recording is delightful — maybe one of the most entertaining cast recordings I’ve heard in years. Composer and lyricist David Yazbek, whom I’ve been a fan of since I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway in 2005, brings his fresh, contemporary sound to the material and keeps it totally in the spirit of the thing with a driving latin beat. True, some of the numbers fall flat (essentially anything sung by the terribly miscast Brian Stokes Mitchell), but most of it is total ear candy.

The album comes with a lyric booklet, and I must note that this album provides a classic mushed up LuPone lyric I’d been mishearing for months via YouTube: In “Invisible” when she sings “I feel like supergirl,” I’d been hearing, “I realized: oh my god!” I seriously thought the lyric booklet was wrong.

To hear what I’m talking about, play this clip and skip to 4:24:

Do you hear it, too? To me, this is almost as grand as “I love fla-na-na-na-na!” (Only hardcore LuPone fans will get that reference.)

Anyway. Get this album.

“Songs of Innocence and Experience: The Music of William Finn”
Lisa Howard is best known for creating the role of Rona Lisa Peretti in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — a quirky musical composed by William Finn about misfits, competition and growing up. I was lucky enough to see Lisa in this role back in 2005, and was immediately drawn to her warmth, sly humor and clarion voice. She showcases all that and more in her new solo album, which features the music of Finn.

What makes this album is the excellent pairing of performer to material. You get the sense that Howard completely connects with the idiosyncratic charms of Finn’s music, and simply delivers the material with ease and earnestness — avoiding layering it with unnecessary irony, as performers tend to do with Finn’s music. In addition, the album arrangements are wonderful, full of spirit and personality. If you’re a fan of Finn’s, then songs like “Sailing” and “Infinite Joy” may seem like overdone choices — however, the arrangements combined with Howard’s interpretations make them sound completely fresh. The album also contains several little-known gems, including a surprisingly subversive character song I’d never heard before, “How to Make Delicious Chocolate Pudding,” which is like a one-act tragicomedy. It’s probably the best track in this fantastic debut solo album.

“Songs of Innocence and Experience” ranks right up there with some of the best theatre-related solo albums I’ve heard. I highly recommend it. Get it.

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