BWW CD Reviews: Ghostlight Records' VENICE (Original Cast Recording) is Deeply Satisfying
Recently Ghostlight Records released the astounding original cast recording of VENICE. The hit Off-Broadway musical features a book by Eric Rosen, music by Matt Sax, lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen, and additional music by Curtis Moore. Having only recently moved to New York City, the show was not even a blip on my radar because presented in 2013 by The Public Theater's The Public Lab. Despite this, the cast album is quite possibly one of the most exciting recordings I have ever had the pleasure to listen to.
Clearly influenced by William Shakespeare's plays and exploring themes of civil unrest, VENICE blends hip-hop and rock aesthetics to create a unique score that has the same appeal of contemporary pop artists like Ed Sheeran while still bringing an overarching narrative to life through music. Unlike Shakespearean plays VENICE is set in the not too distant future, where the once prominent city-state of Venice has been decimated by a massive terrorist attack and military occupation has divided the nation. The elites live in a "Safe Zone" while the rest dwell in ruins. True to Shakespearean form, two young lovers risk all to save their country.
Listening to the recording, in less than 20 seconds I was instantly transfixed by Matt Sax's score. I was struck by how the familiar hip-hop soundscape greeted me and pulled me into the show without hesitation. In fact, I haven't been this excited about modern pop modalities being utilized in a musical score since I first heard Lin-Manuel Miranda's infectious rhythms and beats for IN THE HEIGHTS. As the songs progress from one to the next, it becomes abundantly clear that the heart of the show is it catchy bass-laden beats, which stir the imagination and speak to the heart. There is an undeniable earnest urgency and mystifying allure to Matt Sax's compositions that arrest the attention of the listeners and simply will not release them, making the score evocative and instantly memorable.
Likewise Eric Rosen and Matt Sax's lyrics are tinged with majestic emotionality, satisfyingly relatable yet keenly poetic, and vibrantly alive. With the cadence of Macklemore, Matt Sax recites the rhythmic poetry as the show's narrator. Opening the album with a nod to the classical invocation of the fates, he introduces the listener to the show, its themes and characters, and effortlessly takes hold of our attention. As we move forward through the album, the artistry of the lyrics crescendo as they tell the story, pull on our heartstrings, engage our brains, and leave us with a plethora of instantaneously memorable sound bites, clips, and phrases.
There is not a single song on the disc that I don't enjoy, and each and every performance is brilliant on the album as well. This makes the power and integrity of the music and lyrics all the more impressive and effective. Yet, I would be remiss to gloss over some amazing standout moments. First and foremost, Uzo Aduba (who most know as Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black) is a true revelation as Anna Monroe. She easily makes the track "Anna" the most gratifying song I have heard on a cast album all year. Whether singing or reciting lyrics, Uzo Aduba masterfully fills every word with energy, passion, and tangible intention. As Willow Turner Jennifer Damiano's voice is sweetly golden on numbers like "Waited All These Years," "City at Sleep," and "If Only." Haaz Sleiman is youthful and invigorating as the angsty revolutionary Venice Monroe on numbers such as "Sunrise" and "Poison." As Clown MC, Matt Sax is haunting and his intelligent lyrical delivery reverberates through the soul on every track he lends his voice too. Additional highlights include Angela Polk's soulful Hailey Daisy and Leslie Odom, Jr.'s heartfelt and impassioned performance as the militaristic Markos Monroe.
From opening to close VENICE (Original Cast Recording) clips along with poignancy, is astutely intellectual, and deeply satisfying. It is this kind of confluence of creative energies that makes the medium of musical theatre so magical. From what I can hear on this album, VENICE truly has that special blend of artistry and pizzazz that so many other pieces strive for and fall short of.
Ghostlight Records digitally released VENICE (Original Cast Recording) on September 23, 2014. Physical copies were made available on December 2, 2014. The album can be purchased from Ghostlight Records' online store, iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere music is sold.