Monday, July 25, 2011

Come to this cabaret, old chum

"Whatevah happened to class?" wonder Aimee Doherty and Leigh Barrett.

The funniest thing onstage in Boston this summer - and maybe the funniest thing you'll see on a local stage all year - is the scene above, from And the World Goes 'Round (at the New Rep through this weekend). In it, two of our most talented singer-comediennes, Aimee Doherty and Leigh Barrett, lament the lack of "Class" in the world today - all while demonstrating (in hilarious detail) that they're not really part of the solution, but instead part of the problem.  These two (in real life very classy) ladies have never been more inspired, or more charming - and their scene together is a classic.

It's also the comic peak of an evening that's often effortlessly entertaining, and never less than diverting - indeed, And the World Goes 'Round is probably the strongest cabaret-styled evening I've seen at the New Rep in some time (maybe years).  When I say that, however, I really should put "Cabaret" in quotes, because of course some of the best material in this tribute to composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb comes from their biggest hit, the landmark musical Cabaret.  That triumph (amplified by the brilliantly re-worked Bob Fosse film version), and one other huge hit, Chicago, kept afloat their joint reputation through a series of mixed successes, disappointments, and outright flops on Broadway - but luckily for us, even their biggest bombs contained nuggets of melodic gold, which were strung together into the current revue by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson in the early 90's (and thus includes no tunes from their final efforts - including The Visit, Curtains, and The Scottsboro Boys).

I'm not really here, however, to sing the praises of Ellis, Stroman, or Thompson - And the World Goes 'Round seems to me to lack much definition, and even its rhythm kind of comes and goes.  And there are a few songs I wish were missing ("Yes," "Sara Lee") while one or two more ("Nowadays") I wish had made the cut.  The show basically succeeds because so many of the songs themselves are so well-crafted, and so well-suited to - well, a cabaret.  Brassy, jazzy, sometimes a little trashy, the classic Kander and Ebb ditty was a vehicle tailored to a the abilities of a star personality, or designed to sell a certain worldly, slightly tawdry, fabulousness; their songs operate best in that show-biz zone where the mindsets of the diva and the theatre queen largely overlap.  But even if you're the type that smirks at the excesses of Kander and Ebb muses like Liza (or even Chita), still, you can't deny the songs are damn-well crafted - (unlike, to be honest, the sometimes-pretentious shows in which they made their debuts). Ebb's lyrics were consistently elegant in their rhymes and designs, and Kander, though better at the catchy phrase than the unfolding melody, still found plenty of memorable hooks within those limits.

Thus And the World Goes 'Round boasts not only familiar hits ("All That Jazz," "Maybe This Time," "New York, New York") but also charming, unknown numbers ("Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," "Arthur in the Afternoon," "How Lucky Can You Get") from forgotten shows like 70, Girls, 70 and Woman of the Year.  And the members of the New Rep cast - which features not only Doherty and Barrett but also the talented David Costa, De'Lon Grant, and Shannon Lee Jones - mostly sing the hell out of them, and even hoof a little in a vaguely Fosse-esque fashion (both the direction and the choreography are by the reliable Ilyse Robbins).  I felt in general the kickier songs came off best, including the frenzied ensemble number "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" and the amusingly horny "Arthur in the Afternoon" (in which Shannon Lee Jones shamelessly sang the praises of De'Lon Grant, who proved both an athletic stud and a very good sport).  Not everything was jazzy or hot, however - unexpectedly touching surprises included "Colored Lights," "A Quiet Thing," and "When It All Comes True."  For me, the only wrong note was a weird choral arrangement of "Cabaret" - which seemed to be aiming for a "statement" we'd already long understood - but at least this was immediately followed by a big, gaudy encore of "New York, New York."  As we all know, Kander and Ebb made it there, so they can make it anywhere - including, as this show demonstrates, our own New Repertory Theatre.

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