At the close of the first half of "The World Goes 'Round," the tribute to musical theater stalwarts John Kander and Fred Ebb that just opened at Round House Theatre, the ensemble merrily rolls along to one of the evening's many highlights. Sporting roller skates, four of the five performers circle the stage while singing the title song from Kander and Ebb's 1984 concoction "The Rink." The fifth is on a scooter.
Some skaters glide as if they were born to it; others, with splayed legs and waving arms, look like they're on a suicide mission. But choreographer Patdro Harris has sweetly and simply orchestrated all their movements around Daniel Conway's elegantly imaginative set -- a platform shaped like the top of an oversized grand piano, on which stands a spiral stairway leading to a catwalk.
Occasionally ad-libbing, calling each other by their real names, the quintet seems to be, more than anything else, having fun. Pure, infectious fun, and lots of it. Combined with the hugely enjoyable rendition of the tune, the atmosphere of genuine delight proves that the tough business of musical revue, done right, has a theatrical charge and pleasure all its own.
Not every number in the evening is performed so charmingly well, and a few moments feel thinly staged and executed. But we're talking a relatively few flat notes in an otherwise pitch-perfect visit to the sly, wry world of two of American musical theater's most astute and melodic craftsmen.
Tributes are often like greatest hits collections: They rarely add up to anything beyond the sum of their parts. Terrific as some of them are, individual songs from musicals were intended to be part of a whole -- a narrative both enhanced by and reflected in all the songs in a particular order. Plucked from context and dropped side by side, even distinctive hits from the same pen can sometimes seem like distant relatives who have nothing in common but a name.
Much depends on the selection of songs. A nod is therefore due Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson, who together conceived "The World Goes 'Round" in 1991. The title comes, of course, from "And the World Goes 'Round," a tuneful Kander and Ebb observation on life's habit of carrying on with or without any particular one of us. Feeling insignificant? That's the idea. The number reprises several times throughout the show. In between are songs about love, lust, heartbreak, loneliness, self-delusion, hope and many other significant emotions.
Ellis, Stroman and Thompson have drawn equally from the more acclaimed work ("Cabaret," "Chicago") and the lesser known or valued ("The Rink," "Woman of the Year," among others) to showcase what Kander and Ebb do best -- write with a shrewd wink and a lot of heart about America and Americans. If, as many say, Stephen Sondheim is musical theater's dark, cerebral muse, Kander and Ebb are its loving wise guys, riffing on people's dreams and illusions in a way that endears them to you.
In "Class," for instance, two ill-mannered old bags (Jane Pesci-Townsend and Sherri L. Edelen) lament the dearth of classy people and behavior in the world. Trussed in perfectly garish outfits (costumer Rosemary Pardee, take a bow), Pesci-Townsend and Edelen play the farcical number like a droll pas de deux.
Talents and strengths vary. Pesci-Townsend, who dazzled audiences and critics while filling in as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" during the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration in 2002, has a powerhouse voice but doesn't exactly trip the light fantastic. Gary E. Vincent has only adequate pipes, but moves and dances with more grace and sass than anyone else. (His satiric turn as a sadistic, fey choreographer is a gem.) Will Gartshore's vibrato-heavy tenor is often reliably pleasing.
Some solo numbers score big, such as Mary Jayne Raleigh's spin on "All That Jazz," which she brassily sings like a flapper in a gin joint. Edelen's knockout vocals on "Maybe This Time," delivered while on the stairway, seem to send vibrations throughout the theater. But when the full ensemble is together, "The World Goes 'Round" becomes something else -- five people celebrating a distinct style of song in a distinct and sometimes different way, like serving up "Cabaret" as Manhattan Transfer might.
Except for a dance sequence that goes on too long and starts to look repetitive, co-directors Jerry Whiddon and Harris keep the tone light and lively, the pace fleet and nimble. But there's plenty of kick in the evening, too. Like Kander and Ebb, Whiddon and Harris know how to slip a mean shot of rye into a Shirley Temple.
The World Goes 'Round, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson. Directed by Jerry Whiddon and Patdro Harris. Music direction by Christopher Youstra; lighting, Alexander Cooper; sound, Tony Angelini. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through July 3 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.