Chicago. Cabaret. Kiss of the Spider Woman. These three Tony and Grammy award-winning works by John Kander and Fred Ebb conjure up images of flawed characters navigating situations both hilarious and tragic, accompanied by numbers like “All that Jazz”, “I Don’t Care Much”, and “Dressing Them Up”. As Signature has shown us with last season’s Kander and Ebb Festival, Kander and Ebb have written other shows that, while less successful at the box office, nonetheless offer rich, surprising scores. With First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb, director Eric Schaeffer has deftly blended famous numbers from their hit shows with hidden gems from Steel Pier, The Rink, and Flora the Red Menace and the result is a dazzling, delightful showcase that will captivate you from start to finish.
While a coherent story is a bit too much to hope for in a musical revue, William David Brohn (Orchestrations) and David Loud (Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangement) have clearly put a great deal of effort into crafting two acts that run a gamut of love and loss, laughter and heartache. The energy and tone of the music rises and falls at just the right points, keeping the audience on their toes and never lagging at one emotional extreme for too long. While not every transition makes perfect sense, the show does exhibit a coherent thematic flow, and there’s no denying the sheer joy offered by its sampling of over thirty of the best songs of Kander and Ebb’s oeuvre.
Several times the arrangements truly shine, particularly during a blockbuster duet that blends “The Money Tree”, from The Act, and “Maybe This Time”, from Cabaret. Julia Murney and Heidi Blickenstaff interweave their stories of two women teetering on the edge, desperately grasping for happiness and normalcy. As the parallel numbers near their end, the two dynamic vocalists race toward a hair-raising crescendo of raw emotion, silhouetted in a hazy purple light. It’s a spectacle I’ll not soon forget.
The lesser-known shows offer one pleasant surprise after another. Norm Lewis reveals himself as a consummate song and dance man with “Sara Lee”, a heartfelt ode not to a hometown sweetheart, but to the pastry queen herself. Lewis shows his profound love for Sara Lee’s apple pie and other baked goods with grace and style. James Clow performs “Blue Crystal”, my favorite number in the revue, with a smooth baritone and instantly likeable demeanor that have clearly aided him in snagging so many Broadway leads. This number from The Rink follows a man’s fantastical trip to the moon to get his girlfriend a precious, unique gift, made of rare blue crystal. In one of the most beautiful moments, he sings the line, “Only three days…that’s simply amazing…” finishing with a beautiful sustained note that hangs in the air delicately as he gazes off into space.
Of course, what would a night of Kander and Ebb be without the audience favorites. Matthew Scott offers up a melancholy, halting take on “Cabaret”, surprising the audience with his restraint and quiet despair after spending several numbers hamming it up and bouncing around the stage as a frenzied ball of energy. In addition to a faithful rendition of “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago, the company offers up a slick, scaled back version of “The Cell Block Tango”. Eerie white lights housed in the stage throw each actor into stark relief, lending them an air of menace and seduction as they bring the six incarcerated female characters to vibrant life. Finally, Eleasha Gamble’s powerful, soulful voice is given center stage in a barnburner of a rendition of “New York, New York”. In the mere one minute of music afforded her by the revue’s truncated version, Gamble blows the doors off the theater with each joyful, hair rising belt, leaving the audience agape for several seconds before they burst into applause.
The set and costumes seem purposefully unobtrusive, so as to support rather than distract from the music, the real star of the show. The stage is left bare, save for 6 clear stools used in various numbers, with a thin band of green neon light running around the proscenium. The orchestra is arranged on risers behind the performers onstage, the brass and polished wood of their instruments glinting in the light, as if to expose to the audience all the inner workings of a great Kander and Ebb number. The performers have only a few costume changes, sticking with two or three different dark suits or dresses for the whole performance. In keeping their outfits simple and uniform, they can slip into several different roles and styles with ease, relying on their acting and singing chops rather than fancy garb to flesh out the details.
Over their various careers, the six performers have amassed impressive resumes including lead roles in the Broadway and National tours of Les Misérables, The Full Monty, West Side Story, Company, Wicked, Assassins, The Little Mermaid, Jersey Boys and Chicago. Their extensive experience and command of their craft allows them to convincingly portray multiple characters, spanning vastly different emotions and scenarios, all the while delivering knockout vocal and physical performances. I honestly could not be pressed to choose a favorite. What was very refreshing was that none of the performers attempted to upstage the others; they came off instead as a group of friends putting on a show for their own pure enjoyment. The orchestra, as well, deserves acclaim for ably charting a course through almost 35 different songs spanning multiple genres and time periods.
The show has very few weak points. The more showy numbers suffered from occasional awkward dance steps, and the actors, specifically the veteran Clow, went noticeably flat once or twice. However, the consistently excellent performances in the rest of the show overshadow the few missteps.
First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb – TOP PICK!
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
DCTS review – TOP PICK!
- Peter Marks . The Post
- Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
- Bob Mondello . City Paper
- Missy Frederick . DCist
- Paul Harris . Variety
- Michael Toscano . Theatermania
- Brad Hathaway . Potomac Stages
- Peter Marks . The Post