If Josh Groban were a baseball player, he would be a home-run hitter. When he approaches a song, he swings for the fences almost every time with his booming, operatic voice.
Now, that approach doesn't really work every time, especially on some lightweight pop that Groban has tried over the years. But on "Stages" (Reprise), where Groban takes on his favorite songs from Broadway and film musicals, he connects nearly every time, using his powerful voice to deliver essentially one showstopper after another.
And when he and Kelly Clarkson wrap their voices together for "All I Ask of You" from "Phantom of the Opera," it is a showstopper among showstoppers. Obviously, the Andrew Lloyd Webber ballad is pretty spectacular on its own, but Groban and Clarkson are also at the tops of their games here, moving quickly between power and vulnerability until they both hit unbelievably high, clear notes that seem like athletic and emotional marvels.
"What I Did For Love" from "A Chorus Line" is another stunner, as producers Humberto Gatica and Bernie Herms smartly set Groban against a full orchestra at times and against a full rock band at others. Then, when Groban's vocals are at their most thunderous, both the full orchestra and the full band try to keep up with his delivery.
Groban actually succeeds in holding back a bit on his gorgeous, sorta-laid-back version of "Try to Remember" from "The Fantasticks," going for sweetness rather than blunt force. But he doesn't hold back quite enough on "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz," despite the spare arrangement that focuses on a simple acoustic guitar.
And on "Old Devil Moon" from "Finian's Rainbow," Groban's delivery is so ham-fisted it stomps all the giddiness out of the song, even though Chris Botti's airy trumpet solo tries to lighten the mood.
Of course, no one really comes to a Groban album seeking subtlety anyway. They want stylish shows of power like "You'll Never Walk Alone," with its towering notes and stylish show of strength. And that's what "Stages" delivers over and over again.
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THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE Groban tackles his favorite musical showstoppers