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On Broadway: A Cast Album Roundup

The 2013-14 theater season is officially off the boards, but the original recordings for some of its biggest shows are still rolling out; here’s how eight major releases stack up, from best to (sorry, Idina!) worst

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The Bridges of Madison County
Synopsis Jason Robert Brown’s soaring adaptation of the 1992 novel about a small-town love affair.
Standing-O Moment ”One Second and a Million Miles,” the ravishing love duet destined to become a cabaret standard.
When to Take a Bathroom Break Cross your legs for it all if you can. But if you really have to go, skip the unnecessarily dreary ”Something From a Dream.”
Just Like Being There? Absolutely. Though the show ended its run far too quickly, this fluid, gorgeous, and perfectly captured recording nearly puts you back in the theater.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [10 out of 10]

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Synopsis Audra McDonald’s exquisite homage to Billie Holiday in her final days just won the actress her sixth Tony.
Standing-O Moment Holiday’s signature ballad ”God Bless the Child” is one of McDonald’s finest moments; she disappears completely into the soulful vibrato of the iconic chanteuse.
When to Take a Bathroom Break The uptempo ”Blues Break” almost seems made for it — the song syncs up with McDonald briefly leaving the stage.
Just Like Being There? Yes, lover. Recorded live in front of an actual audience, Day re-creates the show’s smoky dive-bar intimacy on disc, and nails the nuances of McDonald’s haunting performance.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [9 out of 10]

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Synopsis Neil Patrick Harris revives the 1998 cult fave about a transgender rocker.
Standing-O Moment ”Tear Me Down,” Hedwig’s high-adrenaline opening number and the show’s best headbanger.
When to Take a Bathroom Break ”Wicked Little Town (Reprise),” the sluggish emotional climax, doesn’t quite register — on stage or off.
Just Like Being There? Ja! The pulsating score has always been the star of this show, even in its original-run days. Just turn up the volume to max, picture NPH in fishnets, and you’re there.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [8 out of 10]

Aladdin
Synopsis The 1992 animated flick is the latest Disney tale to fly from screen to stage.
Standing-O Moment ”Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” a jubilant original written for the stage, captures Aladdin‘s euphoric dance breaks and clever wordplay. (So many hummus puns!)
When to Take a Bathroom Break Sorry, Jafar. Despite being sung by the film’s original voice actor Jonathan Freeman, the villain’s tango-inspired ”Diamond in the Rough” needs polishing.
Just Like Being There? Magically close. Strong characters, sky-high orchestration, and the Genie’s frenetic pop culture diatribes bring the Disney pixie dust.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [8 out of 10]

Violet
Synopsis Sutton Foster stars as a maimed girl searching for salvation.
Standing-O Moment ”Raise Me Up,” a joyful gospel number that literally stops the show, and highlights the powerful vocalists in Violet‘s seasoned cast.
When to Take a Bathroom Break Unless you get a thrill from songs about the banality of playing poker, feel free to bypass ”Luck of the Draw.”
Just Like Being There? More than most. The inclusion of all 90 minutes of dialogue and music preserves the whole lovely Sutton experience on two worthy discs.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [6 out of 10]

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Synopsis The tune-packed life story of singer-songwriter Carole King.
Standing-O Moment ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the show’s Act 2 crowd-pleaser — and a pitch-perfect example of why Jessie Mueller deserved her Tony.
When to Take a Bathroom Break No offense to Carole, but good luck feeling the earth move during ho-hum covers of ”Up on the Roof” and ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
Just Like Being There? Not so much. Beautiful‘s plot is virtually absent on the over-glossed record, which forfeits the lush spontaneity so present in the show.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [6 out of 10]

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Synopsis 2014’s Tony-walloping Best Musical.
Standing-O Moment ”I’ve Decided to Marry You,” the musical equivalent of a Three’s Company episode, illustrates the production’s madcap farce and shrewd rhymes.
When to Take a Bathroom Break Comic momentum comes to a standstill with ”Inside Out” and ”Sibella,” droll ballads you won’t even notice you missed.
Just Like Being There? It’s easy to understand why this merry show took home four statuettes, but Jefferson Mays’ feverish performance as eight ill-fated aristocrats suffers without the visuals.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [5 out of 10]

If/Then
Synopsis The Sliding Doors-like tuner penned specifically for Broadway diva Idina Menzel.
Standing-O Moment Menzel’s shining aria ”Always Starting Over” will be your shower song for years to come.
When to Take a Bathroom Break Most of the show falls flat due to repetitive, clunky lyrics. (Honestly, how many ways can you say ”what if”?)
Just Like Being There? Eh/No. The troubled score works better as a stand-alone record than it does on stage. But it’s probably best for giving Frozen and Rent a well-earned break on Menzel superfans’ playlists.
Rating, in Jazz Hands [3 out of 10]

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