Even in a flop, the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb can
really get the juices flowing. We heard that last October in Syracuse
University Drama Department’s smash revival of Steel Pier. This year SU faculty member Nathan Hurwitz is reviving the 1991 Kander-Ebb review The World Goes ’Round with little-heard treasures from shows like Flora the Red Menace (1965), 70, Girls, 70 (1971) and The Rink (1984). Kander and Ebb enjoy huge esteem among musical theater buffs based mainly on two shows, Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975, revived in 1996). Zorba (1968),
last seen in these parts 20 years ago, might make that 2½ shows. Thanks
to the SU Drama students, this time around we get to hear what we’ve
Kander and Ebb flourished when American musical theater
was supposed to be in decline, but mass audiences flocked to Andrew
Lloyd Webber and Schonberg and Boublil and critics swooned for Stephen
Sondheim. Theirs is a distinctive voice; you can recognize it in an
instant, but it comes in a variety of modes. They can spoof earlier
styles, like the soft shoe of Chicago’s “Mr. Cellophane” or the
witty patter dialogues of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. Some numbers are
jazzy, others veer toward opera. And even though they were two white
guys who wrote for audiences prepared to pay $100 for admission,
they’ve clearly been marked by the rock sensibility that entered
American popular music with Elvis and the Beatles.
Rolling class: Cast members of SU Drama’s The World Goes ’Round perform a skating production number from Kander and Ebb’s The Rink. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
A great off-Broadway hit in its initial 1991 run, World Goes ’Round also launched the career of choreographer Susan Strohman. She went on to create the dance numbers in Mel Brooks’ The Producers and her own unique dance show Contact. Her shaping contributions here create new contexts for different numbers. The version of World seen
here is quite substantially a dance show with choreography recreated by
Kim Hale, a new assistant professor at SU Drama. All the movement, some
of it comic, as in the naughty “Afternoon with Arthur,” helps to forge
a new place for music and lyrics positioned in an entirely different
context in the original show.
World Goes ’Round calls for five players, two men
and three women, here shed of the lame numbering (Woman #1, Man #2) in
the original production. So great is the abundance of female talent in
the SU Drama program, two women’s roles are taken by different
performers at different times, while the two men, Eric Jarboe and
Benjamin Michael, and the third woman, Kathleen Wrinn, appear in all
performances. Opening night featured brunette Mary Kate Morrissey and
blonde Naomi Seifter. At other times Meredith Perryman and Angela
Travins will take those roles.
It might be a director’s choice, but somehow many of the
songs here come out funnier than in their original contexts or than
they have in previous local productions of World Goes ’Round. This
begins with a novelty number, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” in which the
entire troupe takes antic flight in movements that are, well,
hyper-caffeinated. The well-known “Money, Money” from Cabaret takes
on new meaning with the singers’ backs carrying signs for General
Motors, Bear Stearns, Big Oil, AIG and Bernie Madoff. Or the mock
anthem, “New York, New York,” whose words all of us know. Here they
come out in five different languages, including French, Chinese and
Russian. Elsewhere we get banjo plucking, baby carriage ballet and
tap-dancing on roller skates.
Comedy is only a garnish, of course. Music is what brings
us in. Director Hurwitz wants us to hear it afresh and forget versions
we already know. In the title number, he has Mary Kate Morrissey begin
so quietly we’re not sure it’s the same song. She becomes the
anti-Minnelli, perhaps a signal to us that Liza does not own this
material. Similarly, “Whatever Happened to Class?,” a fail-safe
showstopper, easily calls to mind the dialogue between murderess Roxie
Hart and the jail matron in Chicago. With Morrissey and Kathleen Wrinn in the duet, it feels like an episode in The View, giving better play to Ebb’s puns and outrageous rhymes.
Blonde, gamine-like Naomi Seifter takes
on many of the saucier numbers, such as “All That Jazz.” She asks the
provocative riddle, “Do you know why I’m wearing a white garter?
(Two-beat pause.) Anyone who moves above it is going to heaven.”
Despite being the only woman with a decolletage, she can still break
out of type with the poignant “A Quiet Thing” from Flora the Red Menace.
Tall, red-haired Kathleen Wrinn seems cast as the heartbroken survivor in two well-placed numbers from the 1975 movie Funny Lady toward
the ends of both the first and second acts, “How Lucky Can You Get” and
“Isn’t This Better.” Once again any suggestion of the original
performer, Barbra Streisand, has been banished and Wrinn finds new
resonances and power in her own delivery.
Which is not to say this Kander and Ebb don’t love the
male voice. Benjamin Michael takes on a wider range of themes, from the
hilariously gustatory “Sara Lee,” where a yearning for pastry sounds
lusty, to the sweet pathos of “Mr. Cellophane.” Sweetness and exuberant
joy fuse in Michael’s biggest item, “Marry Me,” which expands into a
dance number engaging the whole company. A surprisingly athletic
Michael dons a mustache to become a non-singing comic foil in
“Afternoons with Arthur.” Eric Jarboe takes on more of Kander and Ebb’s
lyric irony in the excellent “I Don’t Remember You” and “Kiss of the
Putting aside director Hurwitz’s one bad call, running
seven endless minutes of CNN news at the beginning of the action, he
makes sure the musicians are as prominent as the singers. Addressing
head-on the lack of a pit in Syracuse Stage’s Storch Theatre, he puts
the seven players (including himself) right on stage. Their playing
alone would make the show compelling. But in the spirit of things,
balding reed player Joe Carello allows his pate to be a comic prop for
Naomi Seifter. And he never misses a beat.
This production runs through May 9. See Times Table for information.