Thursday 8 October 2015

CD Review: The Light Princess Original Cast Recording (Mercury Classics/Universal, 2015)

Levity Forever! In the anniversary tribute piece that I wrote about The Light Princess, I noted that it was hard to believe that a year had passed since the show opened at the National Theatre. Well, now two years have passed since The Light Princess’s great NT debut, and the Original Cast Recording of Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos’s vibrant musical fairy-tale has, at last, been released on Mercury Classics/Universal. As dedicated followers of this show know by now, good things (or - c’mon! - “better than good” things) come to those who wait, and the chance to finally own a copy of this score is joyous indeed.

The reason for the lengthy gestation of the OCR has been down to Amos’s involvement in other projects (a new album and world tour last year) and her commitment to micro-managing this release, which she’s produced with her usual team, and Adamson's close collaboration. Not for Amos the shove-the-cast-in-a-studio-and-get-it-recorded-fast tactics of most OCRs. Rather, she’s approached this recording with all the commitment, care and attention-to-detail that she’s brought to bear on her best studio albums. Boasting full lyrics, detailed plot synopsis and exquisite photos of the NT production (many being presented for the first time), the packaging of the two-CD set is stunningly beautiful. Such elements as the synopsis and the photos are also a handy addition for those experiencing the musical for the first time, without the benefit of the memories of the superb, surreal stage pictures conjured in Marianne Elliott’s terrific production.

While many of us loved the The Light Princess’s score from first encounter, and were excited to go back and experience it many (many…) times in the theatre, the music proved to be the most divisive element of the show, with a number of commentators bemoaning the score's lack of “accessibility” and absence of - gah - “memorable tunes”. Frankly, such complaints never held much weight (pun intended) for those who’d truly paid attention to the show. Instead, such remarks revealed that Amos and Adamson had co-composed a musical too sophisticated and intricate for some tastes, and painfully exposed the lack of an adequate vocabulary to really discuss and explore new musical theatre writing on the part of many British theatre critics.  

Such criticisms can now be silenced. With enhanced strings, a more central place for Katherine Rockhill’s terrific piano work, and lush production, the beauty, depths and detail of the music emerge as clearly as a bell on the OCR. Amos and her team have ensured that the score leaps off the speakers here: fresh, supple, shimmering, chamber-intense, always expressive of the characters’ personalities and emotional states, always a motor for the unfolding narrative.

The Light Princess is, indeed (and perhaps problematically so for those who prefer their musicals po-mo ironic), a score that runs on pure emotion, encompassing delicacy, stridency, playfulness, gleeful exuberance and operatic ache in order to tell what is, at its very tender heart, a coming-of-age story of an archetypal variety presented through the contrasts, parallels and pairings of its two protagonists’ worlds. What’s striking is that the show doesn’t descend to mere camp. It’s sharp, witty and cheeky, sure, but Amos and Adamson’s emotional acuity ensure that the piece never shies away from doing justice to difficult, complex feelings. The sense of emotional ebb and flow, the meaningful transitions, the refrains and variations, the exquisite melodies that may be employed only once, the stunning build of the ambitious sustained sequences “Queen Material”  and “Nothing More Than This” can be fully explored and savoured here, along with the terrific vocal performances from the cast– all of whom reprise their roles from the original production.

In performance, Rosalie Craig did so many fresh and in-the-moment things as the gravity-free heroine that to hear her performance "fixed" by a recording may seem inevitably reductive. Yet Craig's shrewd choices here mean that her Althea remains a wonderfully complex, protean creation, and her sublime delivery of  “My Fairy-Story,” “Better Than Good,” and “Darkest Hour” retains every bit of the soaring passion and bite that it had in the theatre. Craig’s is a thrilling, generous performance; one for the ages.  The brilliant Nick Hendrix sounds beautifully sweet and strong as Digby, and his duets with Craig on “Althea” and “Amphibiava” are among the funniest, sexiest, most poignant duets in any musical, period. As the controlling Kings, Hal Fowler delivers a properly scary “Proverbs” - accompanied by seismic piano crash from Rockhill –while Clive Rowe’s Darius remains one of the finest achievements in the actor’s distinguished career, his fearsome bellow at the climax of “The Whistleblower” turning, heartbreakingly, into the vulnerability of a little boy as he begins to realise the damage that his actions have wrought. 

It’s part of the project’s embracing generosity of spirit that each cast member gets their moment to shine, though: whether it’s Laura Pitt-Pulford’s contribution to the swaggering “Sealand Supremacy” (what I think of as the show’s “Bonnie Tyler moment”), Amy Booth-Steel’s Piper fiercely challenging Darius on “The Whistleblower”, Malinda Parris’s sensational, hilarious “Scandal”, or Kane Oliver Parry, as Llewelyn, harmonising exhilaratingly with Hendrix on “Bitter Fate”.  

There are, inevitably, some losses to "just" listening to the show: the series of four “Hellos” that invariably brought the house down at the coda are absent here, for one. Still, the show’s themes emerge with perfect clarity: the seductions of escapism; the balance required in human affairs; the challenges of two teens dealing with maternal loss and paternal legacy. “I’m a d’Arcy/Heartless brutes that’s what we are,” cries Althea on the show’s startling operatic apex, “No H20”, in which she believes herself to be (literally) bolted to her fate. The sentiment is echoed on the aforementioned “Bitter Fate,” where Digby resigns himself to his belief that “I am the solemn Prince; and to be the solemn King’s my lot”.  The fact that both characters find ways to not have their identities and fates controlled by others is part of what makes The Light Princess the affirmative, empowering and cathartic experience that it is (and all-of-a-piece with Amos’s body of work, too).  

Moreover, those who know the score will note, and take delight in, some new additions, including an expanded version of the joyous “Gravity”. That song is also included as one of the "Bonus Tracks" on the OCR, alongside Amos’s piano-and-vocal versions of “Darkest Hour” and “Highness in the Sky”. Though not precisely essential to the album as an experience, both tracks are lovely additions, and “Highness in the Sky” is especially noteworthy, with Amos’s urgent, tumbling piano work and sensual, caressing delivery allowing certain details of the composition to emerge afresh, especially when she reaches the “Everything’s changing, we’re not as we were” lyric.

For those of us who were deeply changed and inspired by The Light Princess over its run at the NT listening to the OCR provides all the joy and emotion of revisiting an old friend after a long separation. For those who didn’t see the production, here - at last - is the chance to experience one of the most original, inventive and richly textured musical scores of our time. And so:  Levity. FOREVER. 

The Light Princess is released on 9th October. 

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