Saturday, July 6, 2019

The World Goes ‘Round At Depot Theatre: A Fan’s Notes

world goes roundHere’s one Depot Theatre devotee and Kander and Ebb admirer’s take on The World Goes ‘Round — a cornucopia of songs by the creative team that gave us the mega-hit Broadway classics Cabaret and Chicago.

One of my earliest experiences with the music of Kander and Ebb involved the first time I auditioned for a production by my high school Drama Club, way back in tenth grade. My family and I had seen the movie version of Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and directed by the one-and-only Bob Fosse, and my parents subsequently bought the eight-track tape of the film’s score (if you were born any time after 1980, go ask Grandma what an eight-track was!). It was played a lot in our house, so I was quite familiar with the songs in the movie and my favorite was “Maybe This Time” — a rueful, “am-down-and-out-but-will-rise-again” anthem that, as belted out by Ms. Minnelli, is one of the musical high points in a movie packed with them.

Knowing very little about audition preparation, let alone singing Broadway tunes, I decided to do “Maybe This Time” for my audition song. We were called in in pairs, and my partner was Alison Lazerwitz, a talented junior with a beautiful voice who had been one of the standout performers in the Drama Club’s most recent musical revue. She went first and guess what song she sang? None other than “Maybe This Time,” which she knocked out of the proverbial park. Caught off-guard by this seeming coincidence, I announced to the drama teacher and his co-director, with evident embarrassment, that I had prepared the same song and proceeded to croak it.

Needless to say, I did not get the part.

In retrospect, I realize now that I had no one in my life then to tell me it was a bad choice — that “Maybe This Time” was a quote-unquote “girl’s” song or, more critically, that it wasn’t in my range. But as Edith Piaf would say — in translation — I have no regrets. “Maybe This Time” is a powerhouse number that still gives me chills whenever I hear it, and I did the best I could with it at the time.

Besides, what I know now, which the Innocent-I-Was had no inkling of then, is that the work of Kander and Ebb speaks to the androgynous in all of us — and today, in 2019, that’s an especially good thing.

Forgive my opening with such a personal aside, but this flood of reveries stems from the inaugural production of the Depot Theatre’s 41st professional summer-stock season — The World Goes ‘Round: The Songs of Kander & Ebb — which runs at the historic train station theatre here in beautiful, downtown Westport, New York through Sunday, July 14.

If you love the work of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, as I do, you really need to see this show. If you’re not so familiar with their work, this production of The World Goes ‘Round presents a wonderful opportunity to experience a bevy of songs — some of them obscure, many of them among the best tunes ever written for the Great White Way — guaranteed to entertain, amuse and touch your heart.

From Obscure Works to Masterpieces

Before I proceed further, a critic’s disclaimer: I generally prefer straight plays to musicals and I almost always prefer so-called “book” musicals — i.e., with ample dialogue between songs as well as a plot — to revues. On the other hand, I am keenly aware of the harsh economics involved in producing professional theater these days and the attraction — not only to theater companies but also many current theatergoers — of more easily produced, small-cast shows that elevate musical components, especially when delivered by well-trained voices, over the spoken word.

That said, The World Goes ‘Round is one of the better revues I’ve seen and heard. For one, pretty much all of the songs in it — except for those composed for the movies Funny Lady and New York, New York — were written expressly for Broadway or, in the case of Liza with a Z, a Broadway-inspired TV special. This is not one of those countless revues that take a bunch of pop songs from the 1950s or 60s and try to adapt them to the stage in order to appeal to the nostalgia of contemporary theater’s all-too-often whitehaired audiences. The songs in World were written for musical theater and they really work onstage.

The other thing I really like about this show as conceived is the way its conceivers — Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson — have structured the material. In contrast with all too many of the aforementioned pop-oriented revues, where the presentation of material seems arbitrary, here I detected a conscious throughline in which the songs in Act I speak to more youthful, optimistic themes presented by characters just starting out on the journey of life — at least until we get to the climactic Act I showstoppers from Chicago; while those in Act II speak more to the “sadder but wiser” girls and boys, women and men, who have gone a few rounds with the vagaries of later adulthood and been knocked down, if not out, more than a few times.

This recurrent theme in many of the songs of Kander and Ebb is no better illustrated than in the title song of their single best-known work, Cabaret — particularly by the tragic tale of Elsie from Chelsea, who ends up as “the happiest corpse” the song’s narrator had ever seen. What good is sitting alone in your room, indeed!

One additional neat thing about the material is the large number of songs that were new to this seasoned Kander and Ebb fan. The World Goes ‘Round dutifully plumbs the depths as well as breadth of its subjects’ oeuvre, drawing from such lesser-known works as The Act and Flora, the Red Menace, two other vehicles for Liza Minnelli — arguably, the most iconic performer ever of Kander and Ebb songs; The Rink, which originally starred the fabulous Chita Rivera, another favorite of K&E’s, along with Ms. Minnelli; The Happy Time; and — talk about obscure! — 70, Girls, 70. There are also songs from the musical versions of such great movies as the Tracy-Hepburn classic Woman of the Year; the Oscar-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman; and, one of my all-time favorite foreign films, Zorba the Greek.

However, it is Cabaret, Chicago, and the film score for New York, New York that Kander & Ebb will likely best be remembered for and, not surprisingly The World Turns ‘Round (its title song comes from New York, New York) opens and closes with, and/or builds to in each act, songs from at least one of those three masterpieces.

Masterful Duets and Light-hearted Group Gems

The Depot Theatre’s production is directed and choreographed by Kenney M. Green, making his auspicious debut as the company’s Producing Artistic Director, although he is no stranger to Depot audiences given the multiple previous turns he’s taken there both onstage and off. Adam Michael Tilford is the show’s Music Director and onstage accompanist — with stage presence to spare. The functional, yet charming set — with diaphanous curtains centerstage, a cut-out city skyline upstage, and no shortage of lights — is by the versatile Bonnie B. Brewer. Margaret Swick’s “no-distractions” lighting design gets the job done, and the costumes, as coordinated by triple-threat Mr. Green, are elegant and varied, building largely off of a classic basic black.

The youthful cast of five is especially energetic in multiple duets and larger group numbers. They cover a lot of ground — nearly 30 different songs in just over two hours of performance time—and it must be exhausting. Here are just a few of the highlights from this viewer’s perspective:

• A comically sexy song-and-dance duet between Lauren Gemelli — a natural to play Adelaide in Guys and Dolls someday — and a lithe Dan Bob Higgins with “Arthur in the Afternoon” from The Act;

• Two masterful duets by Megan Koumis and Zoie Morris, as a pair of inebriated barflies in “Class” from Chicago and distant admirers, one of whom packs a wallop of a punchline in “The Grass Is Always Greener” from Woman of the Year — arguably the two most Sondheim-like numbers in an evening of songs by a composer-lyricist team that typically hews a lot closer to the Jerry-Herman-end of the Broadway musical spectrum;

• Michael Indeglio’s show-stopping rendition of that can’t-miss showstopper from Chicago, “Mr. Cellophane” — probably my personal favorite solo number of the evening;

• Mr. Higgins’s bravura delivery of the haunting title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman — the darkest male Broadway aria this side of Phantom of the Opera; and

• The most light-hearted group gem of the production, “Ring Them Bells” from Liza with a Z, in which Ms. Koumis effervescently channels a still-very-much-with-us Liza with an “M”—that is, for “Minnelli.”

High points aside, no review is complete without at least a few minor quibbles. I attended the Friday night preview performance, which was prefaced by Executive Director Kim Rielly’s intro that cautioned the discount-ticketed audience of the possibility of technical glitches. And there were a few. Cast members at times seemed to be unsure of the height and positioning of the curtains, presumably a problem a more attentive stage manager can forestall. An errant microphone, which may have slightly hampered one of the performers in Act I, happily was corrected by Act II, in which that same performer — perhaps not coincidentally — contended for standout of the act. Of course, slip-ups can occur in even the most polished productions and they are part of the beauty of live theater: no two performances are ever exactly the same and only the rarest of them are truly perfect.

In terms of directorial choices, I found it a bit distracting that the rest of the spot-on music ensemble — percussionist Jane Boxall, bassist Finn Gardner Puschak, and woodwinds player Maria Vincelette — were hidden from the audience, particularly given that pianist and conductor Mr. Tilford (always fun to watch) was so conspicuous in directing them.

But again, these are the minutest of quibbles regarding a preview performance that the great majority of audience members in attendance clearly enjoyed.

And yes, my favorite Kander and Ebb tune, “Maybe This Time,” is featured in the show and, as delivered soulfully by Ms. Morris, gave me chills once again. But no, I did not sing along.

Maybe next time.

For tickets and more information about the Depot Theatre, visit www.depottheatre.org.

Fred Balzac’s connection with The Depot Theatre goes back two decades when he and his wife, Kathleen Recchia, a current member of the theater’s board of trustees, took their then-four-year-old son, Samuel, to his first professional theater production, The Pajama Game, which helped inspire Sam’s current career as an actor and composer-lyricist. Fred, Kathy, and Sam remain avid members of The Depot’s extended family.  Balzac has written extensively on theater and other cultural topics for several publications in the North Country region, and he has been the co-recipient of statewide New York Press Association awards for Best Arts Coverage. The author of several plays, he has seen his work produced in New York City both Off-Off-Broadway and at Columbia University, where Fred earned a B.A. in English based in part on a senior thesis examining the “Hidden Roots” of Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child.

Photo: L-R: Megan Koumis, Dan Bob Higgins, Lauren Gemelli, Michael Indeglio, Zoie Morris sing during the opening act of The World Goes ‘Round at the Depot Theatre in Westport.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.




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