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Kander & Ebb’s Splendidly Realized ‘Dream’

By Peter Marks | Washington Post

The equation couldn’t be simpler. A suave songbook + the right singers = bang-up entertainment.

Director Eric Schaeffer masters the straightforward musical-theater math in “First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at Signature Theatre. This sure-footed and silky-throated revue brings back to Signature the show tunes of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the hard-shelled, soft-centered Broadway craftsmen of “Chicago” and “Cabaret” and the anthem of making it here, there and anywhere, “New York, New York.”

If the director’s most important task is assembling the cast, then Schaeffer all but sealed the evening’s fortunes with its six singing actors, who constitute a “First You Dream” dream team. Let’s just name names. Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Eleasha Gamble, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney and Matthew Scott confer heaps of vitality and luster on three dozen numbers from about 18 Kander and Ebb productions — musicals as well as the movies and cabaret acts for which they wrote songs.

Were there room, what would come next in this space would be the names of the 19 orchestra members, who under the direction of Jon Kalbfleisch produce a sound so rich in the intimate auditorium that an audience is enveloped as if the show were piped through ear buds. (A huzzah, too, for sound designer Matt Rowe, who helps maintain a scrupulous aural balance.) To achieve this instrumental bounty, Signature opened its wallet — and it’s the ticket buyers who are getting their money’s worth.

The winning formula also includes a winning format, which boils down to music, music, music. No elaborate introductions have been devised; just one brief recording of lyricist Ebb, who died in 2004, describing his collaboration with Kander. And thank the gods, there’s not a trace of the cloying narrative constructs that undercut Schaeffer’s Stephen Sondheim revue, “Putting It Together,” when it ran a decade ago on Broadway for just three months.

“First You Dream” finds its firmer template in the highly successful “And the World Goes ‘Round,” a 1991 Kander and Ebb revue that featured among others Karen Ziemba, Brenda Pressley and Bob Cuccioli. The gifted David Loud, music director and vocal arranger on that show, has been recruited again for “First You Dream.”

An overlap of several songs exists in the roster: You apparently cannot stage a look back at Kander and Ebb’s output without “Sara Lee,” a kitschy number about snack food love, from their early days. And a duet of “I Don’t Remember You” from “The Happy Time” and “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from “Woman of the Year” migrates to this revue as well.

For his new show, Schaeffer appears to have taken his cue from the look of the Broadway revival of “Chicago”; in both productions, band members sit on risers facing the audience. Then again, “Chicago’s” orchestral placement was a borrowing, too, from the setup at Encores!, the much admired musicals-in-concert series at which the revival of “Chicago” was born.

Hey, whatever works. Kander and Ebb were the focus of a mini-festival at Signature in the spring of 2008; the revue is far more satisfying than either of the main stage musicals, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Visit,” that formed the core of that presentation. As in “And the World Goes ‘Round,” their songs — so often infused with a bittersweet duality, a sense of cynicism or loneliness underneath the gloss — play especially well with one another in rotation.

In a different but equally valid way from the obsessive, inward-looking songs of Sondheim, Kander and Ebb’s work is very actable. Some of the best moments of “First You Dream” marry emotional intensity to gorgeous technique. Take, for instance, the delectably acid-tipped duet by Murney and Blickenstaff of “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far” from “The Rink.” Or Matthew Scott’s mournful, wholly original delivery of the title song from “Cabaret.” Or the witty, surprising, two-word musical-within-a-musical that’s been birthed by the company out of the little remembered “Boom Ditty Boom” from “70, Girls, 70.” (Only in one instance, the abbreviated tribute to choreographer Bob Fosse in a rendition of “Chicago’s” “Razzle Dazzle,” does the revue resort to unfortunate cliche.)

The cast’s freshness never curdles into too-eager-to-please. Lewis gives a smoldering urgency to “Life Is,” the signature song from “Zorba,” and Clow delivers “My Own Space” from “The Act” with a rewarding delicacy. The superb Murney takes intriguing risks with an ugly/beautiful “How Lucky Can You Get?” and Blickenstaff is wiseacre-irresistible in the Liza Minnelli song that ends Act 1, “Ring Them Bells.”

While we’re at it, here’s to Gamble, a young Signature mainstay who has several exhilarating turns, including a gutsy battle with the band to finish off an exuberant “New York, New York.” She demonstrates that she has blossomed into a chanteuse of real presence and power.

Gamble and her comrades play it all with an air of unstinting aplomb. What better tip-of-the-hat to show biz know-how can there be than a show that exudes it?