A whiz of a wiz was Harold Arlen, the composer honored in a new cabaret concert by the Off the Circle Theater Company. "Blues in the Night" is a pleasant evening, though unevenly performed by an ill- matched quintet of variously talented singers.
Big, giving Annette Lowman, with her honeysuckle pipes, simply outshines the rest of the ensemble -- three men who are better at acting than singing and a coppery-haired soprano given to slithering all over the stage. Lowman's version of ''The Man That Got Away" is liquid gospel; her sound is Broadway bound.
Soprano Anne Kanengeiser, despite her melodious voice, suffers by comparison, but with songs like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," nobody's complaining. In fact, they're cheering. Kanengeiser, Anthony Brienza, Wayne Anderson and Gregory Ford are best in combination, virtually stopping the show with a "Wizard of Oz" medley that includes "If I Were King of the Forest" with Brienza in command as the cowardly lion.
In the second part of the 13/4-hour show, the cast turns to less familiar songs -- two of them best numbers for individual performers: "Push De Button," a winning parody by Anderson in Calypso style, Manhattan camp; and Ford in "Sleepin' Bee," from the musical "House of Flowers." Miscast Ford spends most of the show tackling notes that are out of his range, his key and his style.
"Blues in the Night" will be running concurrently with "Cole Porter Tonight" -- another Off the Circle "best of" anthology. HAROLD ARLEN, BLUES IN THE NIGHT -- At the Columbia Station Cabaret through May 15. 667-2900. Theater Off the Circle's Album of Harold Arlen Songs By Megan Rosenfeld
The Off the Circle Repertory Co. has much talent on tap and the time has come to use it even better. The group's current offering, "Blues in the Night," a Harold Arlen sampler, is--as we have come to expect--sprightly, well-sung and musically enjoyable. If only it went the extra mile and exhibited inventiveness and more assured actors as well.
Arlen has produced a wealth of classic songs, from "Get Happy" to "Stormy Weather" to "Over the Rainbow," and on and on, with lyricists such as E.Y. Harburg, Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer. Not that every song is a masterpiece; he had his share of dumb ones, like "God's Country," used in the movie "Babes in Arms," a supposedly rousing production number that included such couplets as ". . . drop your sabers/we all want to be your neighbors . . ." But everything is forgiven a man who produced the priceless scores to "St. Louis Woman" and "House of Flowers," not to mention "The Wizard of Oz."
No one is credited with the book that tries to knit together the songs in "Blues in the Night," and that's just as well. It is stiff and cumbersome, concentrating on details of interest only to cultists: who played a part in the original production or who choreographed a number in a movie. Information about Arlen himself or the context of a particular song might have been more appropriate, and perhaps it's time to experiment with the format of having the performers deliver these paragraphs of information before launching into song.
Director Fredric Lee has cast some of his experienced performers, and a few of them are indeed a pleasure. Annette Lowman has a big, bluesy voice that does justice to greats like "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," "Get Happy" and "Stormy Weather." Gregory Ford is another delight, with his warm, flexible, versatile voice and genuine charm. Anthony Brienza does well with some of the character numbers, and he scores a home run with the Cowardly Lion's song from "Oz," "If I Were King of the Forest."
Anne Kanengeiser has a classical soprano and shines particularly with "Last Night When We Were Young." But she shares with Wayne Anderson a show-biz archness that gets in the way of authentic feeling. It's a case of too much fake charm, which could be erased along with her green eyeshadow and his phony smile.
The simple setting in Columbia Station's pleasantly renovated cabaret room is elegant and serviceable, but costume designer Will Weckesser has produced what may be the most unattractive, badly made and inappropriate costumes for women seen on the Washington stage for several seasons. It is clear he purchased several standard patterns and a bonanza of polyester remnants, without regard to the silhouettes of the actresses or the songs they perform.
"Blues in the Night," produced by the Off the Circle Repertory Co., music by Harold Arlen, directed by Fredric Lee, musical direction and accompaniment by Thomas Tumulty, lighting by Jean S. Rosenthal, costumes by Will Weckesser. With Wayne Anderson, Anthony Brienza, Gregory Ford, Annette Lowman and Anne Kanengeiser. At Columbia Station, Tuesday through Sunday, through May 14.