Monday, June 23, 2014
Album Review: 21 CHUMP STREET (ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING)
Tony Award winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a short 'mini musical' for a radio podcast titled 'This American Life'. Based on a news article about a high school boy falling in love with a transfer student who turned out to be an undercover cop investigating the school for drugs, 21 Chump Street is shorter than a one-act show, with the score clocking in at under 15 minutes in length.
This EP of the show's score appeared on iTunes without warning. And it couldn't be a more welcomed surprise.
The most remarkable thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda's score is that it was apparently composed in about a week's time... and that's remarkable because the score is really, really good. Like, so good it's almost maddening. In the time it takes other composers to write a first draft of one song, Lin-Manuel wrote five strong pieces with ridiculously infectious melodies and clever, layered lyrics. Not only that, but the show has depth as well. In these 20 minutes, we learn a lot about these characters... at least, enough that they come to life. Not an easy feat for a short show written in a short time. But somehow, Lin-Manuel pulls it off.
If you know Lin-Manuel's famous work on In the Heights, you know that his musical theatre writing is pretty unconventional. You wouldn't expect styles like rap and hip hop to be good for a musical, but Lin-Manuel is a master of translating those genres to theatrical writing. 21 Chump Street has a similar feel to In the Heights, without the Latin flair. Consider it fair warning when I say that the songs are seriously catchy. Like, you won't be able to get them out of your head. They're a treat for the ears, filled with bright melodies, clever word play, and exuberant energy. While they're all terrific, the best of the bunch is the show's opener, 'What the Heck I Gotta Do?', an exciting declaration of teenage desire that you'll be humming for days.
Not to mention the knockout cast of singing talent assembled. Lindsay Mendez plays the undercover cop under the code name Naomi Rodriguez. Mendez has steel pipes that are always a treat to listen to. As the love-struck teenager Justin, Anthony Ramos is not a name that will likely be familiar to many... but this is a more than fitting introduction. Ramos sings (and raps) beautifully, with a voice perfectly suited to the hip hop infused music.
This would be a great musical with a great score even if it hadn't been written in such an admirably short time... but the fact that it was created that fast says even more about it. Lin-Manuel Miranda continues to prove his immense talent with a funny, alive, endearing, and interesting show that explores a world of teenage love and the complications surrounding Justin's unknowing infatuation with an undercover police officer, and how the officer uses this to her advantage to make an arrest. There's a moral ambiguity here that makes for fascinating theatre, supported by a memorable score that leaves us wanting more. As it is, 21 Chump Street is a delicious little bite-sized musical that's totally satisfying. If you're on Lin-Manuel Miranda withdrawal, buy this EP. Now.