Lives in Song

There's so much to like in And the World Goes 'Round that I don't know where to begin. A nearly all-musical revue celebrating John Kander and Fred Ebb -- the award-winning songwriters of the scores to such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago and such movies as New York, New York and Funny Lady -- the show is one highlight after another. But so is Stages' exuberant production; the Southwest premiere bubbles with a whole lot of fun and even more polish.

In a welcome renaissance, the local theater community is bringing some dozen musicals to the Houston area this spring and summer, and Stages, with professional panache abounding, has set the benchmark. "Sometimes you're happy. / Sometimes you're sad. / But the world goes 'round," lyricist Ebb puts it in the New York, New York anthem from which the revue's title is taken, and I want to put it this way: this production is the most satisfying evening I've spent at the theater in ages. Thirty-one songs, zero duds.

Like the best revues, And the World Goes 'Round -- conceived in 1991 by director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and compiler David Thompson -- is all arcs of atmosphere, emotion, intimacy and theatrics, with numerous mood-setting songs playing off one another and a few climactic numbers serving as mini-dramas in their own right. Kander's wide-ranging music incorporates everything from showoff-y vaudeville to cool jazz. Ebb's lyrics have an ease as well as an insight about them. It's not that the pair haven't had their share of disasters, but since the show's premise is, a la Side by Side by Sondheim, the linking together of greatest hits, we don't have to sit through the entirety of, say, The Rink just to experience one of that flop's gems, "Colored Lights." A love song that's exquisitely ambivalent in both composition and words, "Colored Lights"' music contrasts the melodic purity of a ballad with grandstanding carnival strains, while the lyrics have a woman who wants to take pleasure in looking back at her romances, but who keeps finding that something was missing, dismissing each memory with "Anyway" or "Anyhow" before mustering up another. Pleasingly artful, Kander and Ebb are also artfully pleasing.

If you're a musical theater buff, you get to be reminded of what you already know: that the trouble in the fast-paced world today is "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup." If you're new to Kander and Ebb, you get to be introduced to "Mr. Cellophane," an endearing schlump who, in a playful sort of soft-shoe, figures Mr. Cellophane should be his given name, since people look right through him. Wit comes especially in "The Grass Is Always Greener," a mock nightclubbish battle between a housewife coveting her actress friend's celebrity and the actress craving the housewife's pot roast. Wisdom, of a sort, can be found in the rousing admission that while a society matron may have coffee in the morning and brandy in the evening, she has young "Arthur in the Afternoon." Ballads span from sweet understatement ("Marry Me"), to fluttering melancholy ("Sometimes a Day Goes By"), to soaring vulnerability ("Maybe This Time"). Such rich material has enabled Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and even those not especially known for their singing -- such as Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year -- to be among the dozen or so Tony winners from Kander and Ebb shows.

If Houston gave out its own equivalent to Tonys (why doesn't it?), I'd be hard-pressed to choose from Stages' talent-laden cast. Greg Coles, Holli Golden, Robin Lusby, Susan Shofner and Tug Wilson, in fine, high-spirited form, repeatedly bring down the house in solo and tandem. Working fluidly and enjoyably as parts of a whole (the men even wah-wah worthy of a time warp and the women swing like the Andrews Sisters), they never upstage each other and seem to take genuine delight in the proceedings.

Golden, the belter of the lot, puts her all into "Maybe This Time" like she's torchbearer to Liza Minnelli. Also a fearless caricaturist, Golden uses her heft to delightful comic effect, becoming, for instance, a privates-scratching Podunker in "Class." Shofner vamps up a frivolous, sexy storm in "And All That Jazz" -- atop the piano in the orchestra pit -- and even hoofs suggestively while getting worked up about the leather-clad young stud "Arthur in the Afternoon." Lusby, burning the candle at both ends, elicits sympathy as an equivocal ingenue in her delicate rendition of "Colored Lights" and prompts smiles as a husband-seeking cynic in her energetically ironic account of "Ring Them Bells."

Coles' searing "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is worth the price of admission alone. Wilson, meanwhile, is nothing short of adorable, whether deliciously crooning to the love of his life "Sara Lee" -- the dessert company -- or reluctantly boasting about being "Mr. Cellophane." He can dance a lick, too. Out of the cast, he's the pro's pro.

Debra Dickinson's direction is all business -- all show business. She knows when to understate, undercut and build, and the last handful of songs are the seamless company effort they should be. One number particularly stands out: in "New York, New York," the performers, playing catch with a beach ball painted as a globe, must sing in the language of the country that seems to fall to them -- French, Japanese, German. After one issues forth, the rest go, "Ah, Swedish," to help out the uncomprehending audience. Another keeps spinning the globe until "U.S.A." comes up. The others make faces.

About the only face I made was at the guy sitting behind me who wouldn't stop tapping his toe. The famous song, via Kander and Ebb at Stages, has never been more true: "What good is sitting alone in your room? / Come here the music play. / Life is a cabaret, my friend. / Come to the cabaret."

And the World Goes 'Round plays through May 28 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 527-8243.

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Peter Szatmary