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CD reviews: Broadway's best soundtracks

'Passing Strange,' cabaret-style indie-rock songs; 'In the Heights,' nominated for 13 Tonys; the timeless American tunes of 'South Pacific'; and more.

By James C. Taylor / June 14, 2008

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Passing Strange – Original Cast Album (Ghostlight Records)

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The boldest musical to hit Broadway in years, this Bildungsroman told in swanky, cabaret-style indie-rock songs is as novel in recorded form as it is on stage. The first Broadway cast album to premiere exclusively on iTunes (it will be released on CD in July), "Passing Strange" retains its eclectic mix of irony, genuine pathos, and unabashed head-banging fun. Recorded live, Mark Stewart (aka Stew) along with his four-piece band and six actor/singers vividly re-create the energy and power of the theatrical experience. This album preserves a thrilling moment in the evolution of the American musical, which, due to its unique form, cannot run for years on Broadway – even if it sneaks away with the Best Musical Tony Award this Sunday. Grade: A

In The Heights – Original Cast Album (Ghostlight Records)

The favorite to win the Best Musical Tony (nominated for 13 awards in total, more than any work this season) "In The Heights" is a traditional – sometimes even generic – show with big ballads and lots of dance numbers. What does occasionally elevate "In The Heights" is the flavorful score – a fusion of salsa, Latin-pop and hip-hop – written by 28-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also stars and sings the catchy opening number). This two-disc, studio recording (released last week) emphasizes the percussion and rap beats at the expense of the brass – perhaps to makes the songs more radio friendly. The polished sound does give clarity to the voices, letting the ear appreciate the intricacy of Miranda's humorous, au courant lyrics; unfortunately, this fidelity cannot raise the more conventional aspects of the show to new heights. Grade: B

South Pacific – The New Broadway Cast Recording (Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway)

Amazingly, this Rodgers and Hammerstein standard has not been seen on Broadway since the original production closed in 1954. There have been countless recordings made in the wake of the original cast album (which featured Mary Martin and opera superstar Ezio Pinza) but none have truly rivaled that classic recording – until now. This new CD possesses the sheen and atmosphere of cast albums from Broadway's golden age. In no small part, this is due to the original orchestrations (courtesy of Robert Russell Bennett, who will receive a special posthumous Tony Award on Sunday). In our era of pared-down pit bands, hearing the lush sound of 30-plus musicians playing these timeless American tunes is a joy. Equally impressive are the expressive, emotionally stirring vocal performances by Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot – who sings "Some Enchanted Evening" with such feeling that he washes away decades of cheesy, crooning versions. A first-class recording of a first-class American musical. Grade: A

Sunday in the Park With George – 2006 London Cast Recording (PS Classics)

After "In The Heights" and "South Pacific," the show with the most Tony nominations is director Sam Buntrock's digitally enhanced vision of "Sunday in the Park With George." In the theater, Buntrock's revival has its virtues; but on disc, this is a weak interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. Daniel Evans as painter Georges Seurat and Jenna Russell as Dot both earned Tony nominations, yet their singing does not delight on this album. Evans tortures many of the brilliant rhymes with overarticulation and Russell is too steely and strained when struggling with Dot's breathless ditties. The reduced, tinny orchestrations may have sounded cool in a small theater (where the production originated); sadly on Broadway and on this CD, this minimalist treatment drains much of the color and texture from Sunday's score. Sometimes less is less. Grade: C

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