BWW Review: FRANK WILDHORN & FRIENDS Illuminates at The Green Room 42
The chance to experience a musical theatre composer playing his own work is always a rarified and insightful experience. In truth, with a few exceptions, composers are not performers, but they bring to the table (or the piano, as it were) an authenticity - call it that first touch instinct that belies the subtle changes and evolution a song inevitably takes on as it rolls out a life of its own once it hits the public ear waves.
Frank Wildhorn is one of those rarist of composers to have had three musicals running concurrently on Broadway (In 1999: JEKYLL & HYDE, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL and THE CIVIL WAR). A 'popular writer' - a phrase of some disdain in the era of Sondheim - Wildhorn's work has largely been maligned by the American press, and like another popular melodist, Andrew Lloyd Webber, he has found his greatest success in productions playing Europe and Asia.
The stateside scorn yielded against Wildhorn critically is, in truth, a bit unfair and rather misplaced. Like Webber, Wildhorn is not a wordsmith and provides solely the music for his compositions (often inspired by classical composers and themes). Like Webber too, Wildhorn has an instinct for large, lush (frequently public domain properties) and has a breathtaking prolificity covering everything from Cyrano to the Count of Monte Cristo, Alice in Wonderland and Frankenstein to Bonnie and Clyde.
Wildhorn also has an instinct for driving, crowd pleasing anthems, and if it can, perhaps, fairly be argued that, historically, there often is a vagueness of character specifics and a relative sameness in his musical approach (songs composed for the heroes of the above mentioned titles are frequently interchangeable) the same, in truth, can be said of much of the hits of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jule Styne.
But in a special Halloween performance celebrating The Green Room 42's 1,000th performance, Wildhorn's music, out of context, and as performed by the composer with an astonishing cadre of musical 'friends,' including American Idol turned Broadway star, Constantine Maroulis, seemingly unveiled new layers, surprising textures, and unexpected musical depth that are illuminating.
Not surprisingly, given the ghoulish holiday, the evening was centered around the Gothic (has there ever been a musical theatre composer so intrigued by man's central struggle with good and evil?) and if the composer - behind the piano - ball capped and extremely affable, admitted off the bat that the set was to be performed with absolutely no rehearsal, it afforded the rather magical spell of experiencing an inpromptu jam between a phenomenal group of musicians sharing and riffing on years of shared collaboration.
Working through the composer's best known material, Maroulis - sexy and sinister, with a dynamic rock tenor marking him Wildhorn's ideal male muse - tackled effortlessly the rangy wail of JEKYLL AND HYDE and THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO, and was joined for a series of unique duets from Wildhorn's DRACULA by the gorgeous and intense Japanese musical theatre star, Takako Wildhorn (a star of the all female Takarazuka Revue, she is, to date, the only female to have played the male vampire - a partnership with Wildhorn that led to their marriage in 2015)
But it was in the revealing of Wildhorn's new work that the evening found its greatest inspiration. Two vastly different songs: the plaintive power ballad (with lyrics by Carly Robyn Green) "Our Stars Are Crying," and the driving sax groove, "Thief," provided the absolutely sensational vocalist Carrie Manolakos (imagine the smooth vocal range of Linda Eder with the edge of Pat Benatar) the change to play in turns vulnerability and fire; while "Never to Love" from Wildhorn's EXCALIBUR allowed Maroulis a dulcet opportunity for Michel Legrand-esque musical quandary (and full heart centered openness).
Wildhorn, himself a superb and nuanced pianist, and joined throughout by the team of magnificent musicians he's spent the better part of half a decade on the road with: Clint de Gannon, Julia Adamy, Kevin Ramessar, and most especially Aaron Heick on woodwinds, took his proudest moment in introducing his son, composer-singer Jake Wildhorn. Playing an impressive original song, "Something Else" on guitar with sweet pop angst, the younger Wildhorn is one to watch out for.
Closing with a stirring finale of "The Finest Hour," a resoundingly playful and catchy pean from an upcoming musical Wildhorn announced as being titled LOST BOY (perhaps a take on Peter Pan?) proved few contemporary composers in the musical theatre today have such a gift for audience pleasing ear candy. If this is the composer's cardinal sin, then it seems it's perhaps time to be forgiven. Because when we get down to it, with that ability - the true rarest of musical gifts - what further insight into a songwriter's abilities is even required?
Frank Wildhorn & FRIENDS: The Green Room 42 / Thursday, October 31, 2019