First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb has sailed into the Kennedy Center like a great queen of Tall Ships into a deep water port. The show is elegant and quietly stunning in its old world way, delivered without technological gimmicks or showy sets and costumes. The “razzle dazzle,” as expressed in one of the tunes, is left to be delivered by the music, the words, and six delightfully expressive voices. And boy, did they deliver!
I’d seen the show in 2009 when Artistic director Eric Schaeffer had floated it out at his Signature Theatre to see if his co-conception with David Loud would hold water. It did and I had liked it, but I wasn’t sure if the show could successfully navigate the larger and more treacherous seas surrounding the venue of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre.
In its first incarnation, I‘d simply accepted the work as a nice little revue of the works of a good tunesmith and his clever lyrics writer, some of which seemed indelibly associated with the likes of Liza Minnelli. I remember thinking Eric Schaeffer seemed to be reinventing the more memorable songs in ways I found refreshing (and that still happened with songs like “Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time.”) But in that Signature production, there were still moments that seemed to expose the creative team for their repetitiveness of style and musical build.
There have been some change ups in the cast and line up of songs for this 2012 production, but what has truly been transformational has been Schaeffer’s unerring commitment to mine the essence of each song anew. The singers have honed their talents to shape an authentic emotional arc for each song’s story. Each one has become a musical theatre gem.
On opening night, I also discovered the fine concept underpinning the whole project of Schaeffer and Loud. The co-creators have attempted something more than just a musical review. At the top of the show, the stage is dominated by an enormous scrim with a copy projected of the “First You Dream” handwritten score by Kander and Ebb, from their little known musical Steel Pier. It becomes the first song that introduces the ensemble as they blend their voices, sharing the lyrics, passing them around. The song is then repeated, threaded through the show, to remind the audience that the idea being crafted, navigated through the show, is a story about the creative process of musical theatre itself. This is the dream that first you must dare so that then “you can fly.”
James Kronzer’s set is a bold but simple one, reminding me of certain Encore!-style concert performances in New York. A high bank of vertical risers prominently feature the entire orchestra of 23 players. The singers’ playing space is therefore relegated to two steep flights of stairs and a relatively narrow downstage strip of stage floor. Sharply defined lights create scenes that include, to name just a few, an elevator, a prison cell block, a bedroom, and a beach in Dubrovnic. Lighting designer Howell Binkley creates just the right understated pow by framing scenes and the orchestra with neon tubes that pulsate with Rothko-like color complementerities.
As each song gets set up, the audience watches a new assemblage of instruments being readied that then tease out an intro. The performers enter, conjured up by a certain rhythm and emotional tone, and they slink or strut or perch on stage, immediately embodying characters that seemed to have walked on from a full life elsewhere. Such sparseness forces us to listen to the wonderful inventiveness of Kander and Ebb (and Loud’s orchestrations) all the more intently.
A truly astonishing feat is the balance of orchestra and singers. Despite the stage looking like a sound wall that might overpower normal singers, Music Director and Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch, ably partnered by sound designer Kai Harada, achieved a maximum richness of instrumental sound without ever drowning even the most delicate moments in the singing. The musicians seemed to be present as characters on stage, providing singers with “talking with” moments, sometimes even whisked into a scene simply by a character relating to them with a look or a gesture. It all gave a fullness to Schaeffer’s paean to the world of artistic creation, specifically the successes and longevity of Kander and Ebb’s partnership.
Those two guys sure knew how to create theatrical numbers, and Schaeffer knows how to direct the heart of the songs — in solos that show both loneliness and the painfully earned acts of courage, in duets that traverse the heartbreak of relationships, and in big company numbers that explode into gutsiness of extremes of hope and rage.
The style that dominates the show seems to be an odd, even incongruous one when thinking about the commercial reputation of Kander and Ebb, and that is understatement. So many of the songs start slowly and are built with great restraint.
The individual singers rise to the challenge of this style choice, and all are splendid.
Alan H. Green’s set up for “Razzle Dazzle” is a model of reigned-in minimalism of gesture and sound. In the second act, he sings “Love and Love Alone” sitting on the edge of the stage. James Clow brought tears to my eyes with the pathos and honesty he brings to a song like “My Own Space,” which we might never otherwise have heard.
Leslie Kritzer takes on some of the ditsier characters in the evening yet makes so many of her songs seem so extemporaneously discovered and pouring forth from the girl next door that she wins over all hearts.
Patina Miller is a stunningly beautiful woman yet transforms herself into an innocent workaday girl dreaming about a life so far from her in “City Lights.” Later, it seems that her same character gets to step into a mature and worldly incarnation of that same woman, who now owns “New York New York” as she delivers that signature song.
Matthew Scott’s medley from Kiss of the Spider Woman is so new-minted that he reveals himself as powerful, yet exposing his deepest, most vulnerable human feelings in song. Scott demonstrates an almost shamanic stage presence as he shift-shapes personalities. He plays rampantly with our emotional beliefs when he sings hauntingly of his love in “She’s a Woman” then turns on a dime and knocks us in the teeth with his campy “Dressing Them Up.”
Finally, Heidi Blickenstaff is a force of nature with a sensuality that reminds me of early Kathleen Turner at her most sizzling, and if there are lungs to match hers on stage I didn’t hear them. When she lets go, this woman has genuine star and vocal power that simply has that extra gear. Her “Sing Happy” shows this woman is in possession of a beautiful vocal and emotional range. But she can tone it down beautifully and play in an ensemble with finesse in numbers like “The Apple Doesn’t Fall” with Leslie Kritzer.
Karma Kamp’s choreography has never been so strong and organic as in this show. You could still feel the movement style associated with Kander and Ebb in shows like Chicago and Cabaret — the locked knee bounce, the hip grinds, the isolation “snaps,” and the splayed hands. But in First you Dream, the isolations have been tightened, minimalized, and become so focused that nothing feels wasted or excessive.
When the singers come together and the musicians crank up behind them in smooth lush orchestrations, it becomes an ecstatic music-theatre ride. “Boom Ditty Boom” has to be one of the naughtiest unbleepable songs in the world. These singers have kept all the fun of the song while at the same time playing the reality of the irrational ups and downs of a relationship in a single number that uses only three nonsense syllables repeated. The men blend beautifully whether in the outrageous satirical number of military life, “Military Men” or the haunting “Walking Among My Yesterdays.” And I was delighted to see how Schaeffer has worked in “Go Back Home” from the glorious and under appreciated Broadway show of last year, The Scottsboro Boys. The “Cellblock Tango” from Chicago becomes a number where the men join the row of inmates. The song takes on a new edginess as well as conveys an important universalism in a number about human vengeance against the men who done ‘em wrong.
The show reels us in and out, playing our emotions then returns to the theme of the creators’ dream where it all starts. The theatrical lesson here is when you have six great singer-actors like these that then, yes, you do indeed fly.
First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb runs thru July 1, 2012 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb
Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Conceived by David Loud and Eric Schaeffer
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
Choreographed by Karma Kamp
Produced by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
- Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
- Rachel Eisley . BrightestYoungThings
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
- Joel Markowitz . DCMetroTheaterArts t