‘Music of Kander and Ebb’ Belts Out Familiar and Unexpected Songs

First You Dream | Joan Marcus

There are actually several audiences for “First You Dream: the Music of Kander and Ebb,” a musical revue of the song and show book of John Kander and Fred Ebb, now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through July 1, and all of them are going to be peachy-pleased with the results.

There’s the group which saw the original production, created and mounted at Signature and co-conceived there by David Loud and Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer: it will be delighted to find four of the original cast members performing with newscomers and a 29-member orchestra in a much less intimate, but much boldly brassier, setting.

There is a potentially large number of persons who know about Kander and Ebb. The lyricist of the pair, Ebb, passed away in 2004. Their unique, rich and prolific partnership spawned such huge hits as “Cabaret” (stage and screen) , “Chicago” (stage and screen), “The Rink,” “Liza with a Z,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Woman of the Year,” “The Act,” “Zorba” and “The Happy Time.”

And there is still a larger group which has at least lip-synched to the title song of “Cabaret.” Some of them have sung aloud, either in the shower or at a karaoke bar, the line, “What good is sitting alone in your room?” That would be most of the rest of us, old chum.

And no question—beyond an interest in Kander and Ebb, if not a passion—there is a group which appreciates terrific songs, beautiful songs, dazzling songs that are sung with great style and emotion by a group of six terrifically talented actor-singers or singers, born to sign on Broadway or formed there in performance. That part of the audience will be richly rewarded, whether they are singing “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

Taken together, those audiences ought to do well by this thoughtful, passionately performed and staged whammy of a musical revue. But it is so much more.

Several degrees of separation are in order here. I can make no comparison with the Signature original, one way or the other, but I’ve seen numerous versions of “Cabaret” on Washington area stages, including one at Signature. I’ve always been puzzled by the lack of breakout success of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” an astonishingly original musical. I’ve talked with George Hearns, who did “The Visit” with Chita Rivera at Signature, although the show never quite made the Broadway leap. I also talked with the late Harry Guardino about his experience with “Woman of the Year,” who told vivid stories about working with Lauren Bacall. I’ve seen Liza Minelli on stage at the Kennedy Center, and it should be noted that she was a Kander and Ebb favorite, who could “ring them bells” for sure as well as just kill you with “Maybe This Time.”

Mostly, what you marvel at in “First You Dream”—the song (from 1997’s “Steel Pier”) snakes its way through the show like a seductive, but not pushy, hurdy gurdy man—is the sheer variety and diversity that’s in the body of work in terms of theme, substance and style. The creators have thankfully chosen many songs that are less familiar to a general audience, which gives the show the quality of one of those happy, bottomless swag bags from which emerge a constant parade of happy gifts for the audience. I’m thinking here of songs like the ridiculously giddy “Boom Ditty Boom,” the combination of “Walking Among My Yesterdays” and “Go Back Home” (a touching, beautiful turn by the three male singers, who also do the jaunty “Military Man”), the beautiful and tough love-for-life song, “My Own Space” and “Love and Love Alone,” paired with “Life Is.”

While the gifted collaborators roam all over the thematic, stylistic landscape, there is still a constant. At the core, there is: show biz, shows, showmen, stage rats and royalty, the urgent need to bare your heart in songs and music, the gotta-sing-gotta-dance, the glitz and rags of it all that informs Broadway, musicals, broken hearts that break under a spotlight. You can see why they liked writing for Minelli. You can see why Bob Fosse was drawn to “Cabaret” and submerged himself in “Chicago.” Here are music and songs which often manage to be both lurid and lovely. Hear how they string together “Only in the Movies,” “Happy Endings” and “At the Rialto.” Behold the sleazy soft-shoe sale of “Razzle Dazzle”and the wonderful finale of “Show People.” Feel the pairing (beautifully segued by Matthew Scott) of “Cabaret” and “I Miss the Music.” It is why we go to shows, remember the songs and rub old wounds in the dark like that.

Finally, a few words about the performers. They deliver. They have killer voices. They reach out and touch someone. To be fair, I remember the remarkable Heidi Blickenstaff (Is that a great stage name or what?), who starred in a musical version of the vastly underrated “Meet John Doe” at Ford’s Theatre several years ago. I was happy to see her again, blasting out “Sing Happy” in a sequin dress and lead the way in the deliriously funny, iconic “Ring Them Bells” to cap the first act. Then, there was that moving pairing of James Clow and Patina Miller in “Blue Crystal” and “Marry Me.” Alan Greene dominates “Life Is” and surprises you with his authority and presence and emotional power. Leslie Kritzer knocks “I Don’t Care Much” out of the park.

As a group, after a lengthy first act, they accomplished a remarkable thing. They elevated their game in the second act. I already miss the music.

“First You Dream: the Music of Kander and Ebb” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through July 1; 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600; Kennedy-Center.org.

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