During Broadway's musical golden age, the casts were large, the songs many, the pit orchestra grand. Those days of Ziegfeldian grandeur are long gone, but the melody lingers on, as Ira Gershwin wrote in “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” But sometimes the most fragrant impressions onstage are those with the least ornamentation. Sometimes it's just a singer alone, belting or plaintive, singing to us in the dark. Music Box Theater (Houston Theater Award Winner for Best Cabaret, 2015) revives that quaint notion of performers performing just for us.
Its newest show, The Music Box Does Broadway, is without frills, no sketches this edition, just five extremely talented singing actors doing what comes naturally. Ably backed up, augmented really, by Glenn Sharp's jazzy quartet, who make the arrangements sound as if scored by Robert Russell Bennett, the five Boxers, all Broadway babies of the finest caliber, stand and deliver a cornucopia of show tunes that range from the newest shows currently running on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenal Hamilton and Sarah Bareilles and Jessie Nelson's Waitress; classics Annie Get Your Gun; Camelot, South Pacific, The Music Man, Les Misérables; cult favorites Little Shop of Horrors and Grease; Carole King's Beautiful; and lesser known Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star and Stephen Schwartz's pre-Wicked The Baker's Wife, which never even made it to the Great White Way.
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This cabaret romp is pure delight because the quintet is so damned good. All veterans of musical theater, the five know how to put over a song, to back up a solo, to sing a cappella. Each one is vocally and physically different, which makes for a stirring blend and friendly friction. Warm and inviting, they ask us into their world that they know so well and keep thoroughly hooked. All their shows are like being invited to a swell dinner party where the hosts entertain. They greet you at the door, usher you to your seat, take your drink order. A more personable band of singers you will not find anywhere in town. “We're better when you drink,” is their running mantra, but this isn't true. What cabaret doesn't want you happy? And these five are glorious without our lubrication. We get high from their talent.
Each one gets his or her place in the spotlight in this show, so I'll only name the best of the best, although this version is filled with goodies. Rebekah Dahl, co-founder of MBT with husband Brad Scarborough, is a force of nature, blessed with incandescent stage presence and a powerful sock-'em voice. Although she knocks Schwartz's “Defying Gravity” from Wicked into the stratosphere, it's the compelling, contemplative “So Far Away” from Carole King's Beautiful that burrows deep through us. Scarborough, a superlative tenor, boogies through Billy Joel's “Keepin' the Faith” from Movin' Out, but it's the plaintive “Bring Him Home,” from Boublil and Schonberg's Les Misérables, that will tear you up. Sultry siren Cay Taylor purrs through “Speak Low” from Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's One Touch of Venus, but she intoxicates with her heartfelt rendition of Stephen Schwartz's “Meadowlark” from the aforementioned non-starter Baker's Wife. Kristina Sullivan, she of the crystalline soprano and comic delivery, lets us see why Marion the librarian, in the romance ballad “Till There Was You” from Meredith Willson's The Music Man, has so many swains waiting to check out their books at her front desk. Resonant baritone Luke Wrobel, possessed of a voice that will insure him an easy entrance into Heaven, renders Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's anthem “What Kind of Fool Am I,” from Stop the World I Want to Get Off, with searing intensity and gut-punching drama. And the next moment, he dons a bad wig and sashays through the company's seven-minute flash-drive version of Grease, a goofy showcase for all of them.
If you're a lover of show tunes, good old showbiz pizzazz, and an unending display of talent to amuse and awe, Music Box's current tribute is one to see. Apparently, Trip Adviser rates MBT No. 24 among things to do in Houston. Come on, let's raise that ranking!
Music Box Does Broadway. 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through April 1. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information, call 713-522-7722 or visit themusicboxtheater.com. $27-$37.