How “Broadway” can you get? Not much more, certainly, than is conjured by the songs of those melodic ambassadors from the world of show-tune brass, sultriness and pizazz, John Kander and Fred Ebb. The smooth show-biz polish of the songwriting team behind “Cabaret” and “Chicago” is accorded a mighty fine outlet by six actor-singers and 23 musicians in the pleasingly easygoing Kennedy Center revue “First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb.”
Born in 2009 in the closer-knit confines of Signature Theatre, “First You Dream” makes a mostly successful transition to the demands of a bigger stage, the center’s Eisenhower Theater. Three of the six original performers return, and the onstage orchestra has been expanded, from 19 to 23, for this unfussy presentation, conceived by Eric Schaeffer and David Loud. It consists of about three dozen Kander and Ebb songs from 19 musicals, movies and cabaret acts.
As the set’s decorative scrim illustrating a page from the team’s song book indicates, the emphasis here is strictly on words and music. The delivery of songs is devoid of shtick, and sometimes, the pairing of pieces displays maximum ingenuity: A duet tying “The Money Tree” from 1977’s “The Act” to “Maybe This Time” from the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret” expertly balances the thematic bookends of the Kander and Ebb catalogue, cynicism and hope.
The divine Leslie Kritzer and Heidi Blickenstaff, perched among the orchestra on the lighted staircases of James Kronzer’s handsome vertical set, invest the number with Broadway verve, and nerve. It’s a pinnacle moment of the evening, along with the tunefully irresistible platter served up by Matthew Scott, singing a compilation of the title song from “Cabaret” and, from the 2007 “Curtains,” an impassioned “I Miss the Music.” (Scott, a returnee from the original with Blickenstaff and gifted baritone James Clow, has suaveness to spare.)
In terms of scope, director Schaeffer and vocal arranger Loud — the onstage pianist in the original 1995 “Master Class” at the Kennedy Center — don’t miss much. And that at times is a little wearying. Running 21 / 2 hours, the production requires a merciless trim, especially for the lengthier, more ruminative first act. Occasionally, the orchestra, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, is too strong a competitor for the actors’ voices, and as a result, a chasm opens in some numbers, between a singer’s power and the audience’s expectations.
The lovely Patina Miller, for example, starts out on the night’s penultimate number, the aspirational anthem “New York, New York,” in an intriguingly plaintive demeanor. (You have to distinguish yourself from Liza Minnelli’s peerless interpretation somehow!) But as the song builds, Miller is required to power-shift to a climax, and the effort falls just short of exhilarating. Perhaps if a few songs were eliminated, the singers would be able to conserve some of their energy for a few more memorable musical surges.
“First You Dream” is introduced by a creamy rendition of its title song, from “Steel Pier” — a number that almost (but only almost) engenders a wish for revival of that failed 1997 show about marathon dancers. Soon one of the revue’s singers, Alan H. Green, performs a modest version of a trademark Kander and Ebb song, “Razzle Dazzle,” from the 1975 “Chicago.” And so a pattern is set: “First You Dream” will attempt to give us the old razzle-dazzle in concentrated form. The show stays satisfyingly within itself, and, given that so many of its numbers are fairly obscure, this rather stripped-down approach honors the material. The concept, though, is really devised for a more intimate setting, and even with William David Brohn’s terrific orchestrations and Howell Binkley’s drama-enhancing lighting, you may still yearn for warmer surroundings.
Because the six performers are actors who sing, the strength of the evening expands whenever their voices coalesce in the ensemble numbers. “Boom Ditty Boom,” a song from the 1971 musical “70 Girls, 70,” is a case in point. Ebb’s lyrics for Kander’s spicy melody consist entirely of the title words repeated endlessly. In her musical staging, choreographer Karma Camp wittily places the six men and women in pairs as they proceed to mime the life cycle of three romantic couplings while singing those three nonsense words. And don’t most relationships go through their illogical phases?
Other peaks are achieved in the adorable finale for Act 1, “Ring Them Bells,” a New York love story acted by the cast and charmingly recounted by Blickenstaff. The actors team in Act 2 for a surefire “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago,” and the men bring magnetic vigor to the satiric “Military Men,” from “Over and Over,” which made its debut at Schaeffer’s Signature in 1999. A few songs have been added to the revue (such as “Go Back Home” from 2010’s “The Scottsboro Boys”) and others subtracted (“Sara Lee”) since the 2009 production.
Kathleen Geldard’s costumes are serviceable, if, in the first act, a little bit too generic. And one could wish that Camp was given license to loosen up the singers a bit during their solos; in too many, they simply pose and warble. But even if “First You Dream” feels more muted than it did before, the revue is filled with the little treasures that remind us that when it comes to songwriting talent, Broadway has been a brilliant matchmaker.
music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Conceived by David Loud and Eric Schaeffer. Directed by Schaeffer. Vocal arranger and music supervisor, Loud; musical staging, Karma Camp; set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Kai Harada; conductor, Jon Kalbfleisch; orchestrations, William David Brohn. About 2½ hours. Through July 1 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.