It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Nope, not Christmas. Not 45’s inevitable impeachment. Not the birth of Beyoncé’s twins. This is the magical period when a crap ton of Broadway (and Off-Broadway and London) cast albums are released to promote the shows to audiences and awards voters and, in the cases of brand spanking new shows, cement their future licensing potential.
Out of the cast albums we’ve already gotten (The not-as-good-as-Matilda London import Groundhog Day, Tony Awards-favorite Dear Evan Hansen, and aca-appalling In Transit, to name a few), Tony Awards-dark horse Come From Away and the new recordings of Hello, Dolly! and Falsettos are giving me the most life. And sorry not sorry to the forthcoming releases of the Amelie, Anastasia, The Lightning Thief, etc. but the only date circled in red on my calendar is May 26th when the War Paint cast album drops.
Check back in two weeks if you’re interested in reading my dissertation about that Patti LuPone-Christine Ebersole joint.
To begin discussing today’s topic, let’s auditorially transport ourselves across the pond where one of America’s crowning achievements in musical theatre recently opened for the very first time.
That’s right, Dreamgirls—which opened on Broadway in 1981—is just making its West End debut. And, I am so so happy to report that Tom Eyen’s operatic book and lyrics and Henry Krieger’s gorgeous R&B fusion music have been spectacularly preserved on a new recording with the tracks taken from live performances at London’s Savoy Theater. It’s actually the second live album of the show and features a cast pretty low on star-wattage.
So, what makes this London version so special and so fresh?
Two words: Amber freakin’ Riley.
Like the Effie Whites before her, she has a Best Actress trophy to vouch for her already unimpeachable vocal performance. Long gone are the dark days of Glee when her volcanic riffs were cooled considerably by auto-tune-reliant production. Riley has truly matured as a singer AND as an actress. The DNA of the girl who belts out “Move” at the top of the show is evident in the woman who desperately pleads for “One Night Only” deep in Act/Disc 2.
The real beauty of a live cast album is that you don’t feel silly applauding along. Every utterance from Riley’s mouth demands it. Dream casting never looked and sounded so good. With this epic slaying of an epic role, Amber Riley lands herself on the A-list. And I am telling you she’s not going anywhere.
There are in fact other people in this show and, no surprise, they’re incredible too. While I really hate the wordy, Effie-Deena duet version of “Listen” that’s been shoehorned into every production of the show since the movie’s release, Liisi LaFontaine shimmers as the other half of that screlting dynamic duo. Adam J. Bernard landed himself in the Olivier winners circle along with Riley for his awe-inspiring James “Thunder” Early. His energy across the whole album will electrify you from your eardrums down to your toes.
Besides Riley, the person at the heart of this monumental, Broadway-bound production is director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, Something Rotten!). He’s at the helm of another musical set for a New York production about a dramatic trio turned foursome of awesome women, Mean Girls. We don’t know a lot about that show, but clearly it’s had a huge impact on Nicholaw’s work.
In a word, his Dreamgirls and the album that immortalizes it are fetch.