Renaissance Men

Given the vroom-vroom of their current go-round on stage, it's possible that, even with the theatrical equivalent of a road map, you might not be able to keep track of Kander and Ebb these days. Critically acclaimed revivals of the songwriting team's biggest hits, Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975), are playing in Broadway houses. Steel Pier, their short-lived musical about the marathon-dance craze of the '30s, garnered a handful of Tony nominations during its 1997 run. (A new production of Pier opens at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables in March; the touring production of Chicago arrives at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach in January.) And soon after the first of the year, Over and Over, an adaptation of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Bebe Neuwirth, begins an out-of-New York tryout in suburban Washington, D.C. Not bad for two guys whose first collaboration took place in 1965 -- on a show called Flora, the Red Menace.

Never heard of Flora? Well, never mind. Because shortly after working on it, John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) sat down and created musical theater's most famous come-hither line: "Bienvenue, Willkommen, Welcome." In the 30 years since the team turned Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories into Cabaret, eight other Kander and Ebb musicals have gone to Broadway: The Happy Time (1968), Zorba (1968), 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Chicago (1975), The Act (1977), Woman of the Year (1981), The Rink (1984), and The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993). In addition the team has created songs for movies, including Cabaret and Funny Lady, as well as the Liza Minnelli TV special Liza With a "Z". Their song "New York, New York," written for the Martin Scorsese movie, is now a jazz standard.

So it's no surprise that someone put together a revue of Kander and Ebb works, naming it The World Goes 'Round, after another song from New York, New York. "Sometimes you're happy," insist the lyrics. "And sometimes you're sad. Sometimes you lose every nickel you've had." Small change notwithstanding, that existential statement can almost double as an assessment of the revue itself, a lively new production of which is running at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton. The show, which takes the team's songs out of their original settings and puts them into a concert format , gives us a chance to scrutinize Kander and Ebb in a new way. Are they foremost the geniuses who came up with "Money, Money" for the movie version of Cabaret, or has-beens who last produced great stuff 25 years ago?

The answer, of course, is that they're both. But first, some introductions. The World Goes 'Round, which debuted in 1992, is the work of Susan Stroman, Scott Ellis, and David Thompson. Who are these folks? Stroman choreographed Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier. Thompson penned the libretto for Steel Pier. And Ellis garnered a Tony nomination for directing Steel Pier. Kander and Ebb, it would seem, could hardly be in better hands.

Where else are you going to hear "All That Jazz," the vampy anthem from Chicago; "Arthur in the Afternoon," a tribute to hanky-panky from a woman's point of view from another Liza Minnelli special, The Act; and "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," a cute but forgettable song from the obscure 70, Girls, 70, all in one evening? With parts for five -- three women and two men -- this production in particular, helmed by artistic director Michael Hall, allows the excellent Caldwell troupers to prove themselves. And that they do, despite the fact that much of their audience associates the more familiar songs with the vocal chords of stars such as Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, and Joel Grey.

Indeed, the revue format is a fine way to test a song's mettle for the very reason that listeners will make comparisons with other versions. A good musical number ought to be able to stand up to innumerable interpretations and be reinvented with each new singer. Think of how many versions of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" exist, for example, or how different actors have wrapped their voices around Rodgers and Hammerstein's work. This versatility, however, isn't always forthcoming in the Kander and Ebb songbook. At least not in the portion featured in The World Goes 'Round -- which includes "All That Jazz" and "Class" from Chicago but not its high-energy "Roxie" or "Razzle Dazzle." Here, the title song from Cabaret is reconceived as a big-band number, which works beautifully. In many cases, however, the songs -- with music invariably catchier than the lyrics -- fit well in the shows for which they were written but can't sustain life on their own.

For that reason, during the first half of The World Goes 'Round, which features a glut of songs from obscure shows, my mind often wandered (as would-be theater critic Truman Capote might have put it ) to other voices, other rooms. Act One features the novelty number "Sara Lee" (dedicated to the frozen-dessert goddess), as well as a snappy rendition of "There Goes the Ball Game" from New York, New York. But the mood is dominated by a low-energy medley featuring "My Coloring Book" (a standard), "I Don't Remember You" (from The Happy Time) and "Sometimes a Day Goes By" (from Woman of the Year). Despite the sweet voices of the Caldwell cast, these three songs conspired to convince me that the current Kander and Ebb craze may have more to do with the strength of Cabaret and Chicago, both of which are blessed with compelling books and in the case of Chicago, Bob Fosse choreography, than any magic happening in the orchestra pit. (Lynette Barkley's choreography for this show is merely workmanlike.)

On the other hand, when Kander and Ebb strike gold, it pays off for great singers, as in the case of Sheryl McCallum's powerhouse rendition of "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret. Likewise delightful, although in a completely different way, is "The Grass Is Always Greener" from Woman of the Year. Meant to be sung by two women -- old friends who meet years after one has become a celebrity -- and performed by McCallum and Alice M. Vienneau, "Grass" has more flavor than all four songs included here from The Rink put together. Seeing how well it worked, I wished that Hall, whose directorial touch is almost too light-handed, had taken some of the clunkers out or tried to juice up the low-energy segments.

The women in the Caldwell cast shine the brightest, at least during the first weekend of the run. Troupers John Hoshko and Brad Drummer sing wonderfully, but they're not the voices that will follow you home. Rather, South Florida musical theater favorite Laurie Gamache brings her own indomitable personality to Liza Minnelli's "Arthur in the Afternoon." Her colleague Sheryl McCallum is regrettably underused, and so the heart and soul of the show is the effervescent Alice M. Vienneau. In Vienneau's best moments, she tosses Judy Holliday-esque verve into "Ring Them Bells," a song about a woman "who travels around the world to meet the boy next door." Like her female cohorts, she well knows how to make the world go 'round.

Stage Whispers
Last week's appearance by Culture Clash at the Miami Book Fair International provoked two urgent thoughts. First, their reading/book promotion of their collected scripts was one of the freshest performance events I've seen this year, and not just because of the intelligence and dexterity of their stagecraft. The presentation by the Los Angeles-based group featured excerpts from Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami, the 1994 performance piece culled from interviews with dozens of South Floridians and commenting on our explosive cultural and political landscape. Staleness has not set in. Nor has anyone come along since to make compelling theater out of the South Florida experience.

Since debuting in Miami, the show has traveled to New York, the West Coast, and places in between. From the Wolfson Auditorium stage, however, the group expressed a desire to return here. South Florida theater groups and presenters should do one of two things: Either create theater that matches the power of Culture Clash or bring these guys back pronto. Better yet, do both.

The World Goes 'Round. Conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson; music and lyrics John Kander and Fred Ebb. Directed by Michael Hall. Musical direction by Ken Clifton. Choreography by Lynette Barkley. With Sheryl McCallum, Laurie Gamache, Alice M. Vienneau, John Hoshko, and Brad Drummer. Through December 20. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton; 561-241-7432.

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