Life Is a Broadway Play, Old Chum

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 the suburban area outside 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 such stars 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.)

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