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Sunday, April 23, 2023

Kander and Ebb Musical Revue Dazzles at Olney

Harris Milgrim, Nova Y. Patton, Kevin S. McAllister
Natascia Diaz & Karen Vincent
The songwriting duo of Kander and Ebb may not have the same name recognition in musical theatre and film as legends Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe even Tim Rice and Elton John. But it should.

John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have collaborated on a mountain of songs—many quite familiar—that earned them numerous accolades, Tony’s and Oscars for their efforts. Spanning six decades, the team penned the music for such classic musicals as Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and The Scottsboro Boys to name a few. And did you know that they wrote the colossally famous song “New York, New York” for the film with the same name? Neither did I.

Fortunately, the works of Kander and Ebb are being celebrated in a scintillating revue taking place at the Olney Theatre Center in a partnership with ArtsCentic and Everyman Theatre. With a striking set, a superb orchestra and an incredibly talented company of five, 31 songs are showcased in a two-act revue that brings to life some of the Kander and Ebb fine catalogue.

The revue is titled “The World Goes ‘Round,” an updated version of the 1991 off-Broadway production “And the World Goes Round” that was originally created by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson.  (On a personal level, the title is ironic given I was battling the effects of vertigo during the few days leading up to opening night. Those who have experienced this condition could relate. But enough of me. Back to the review of the revue.)

Kander and Ebb were known to be ahead of their time. While certain topics were considered off-limits, Kander and Ebb confronted dark issues like Nazism in Cabaret, for instance, and social injustice. They dealt with the marginalized in society like the incarcerated. They dealt with racism, female sexuality, queerness and gender fluidity.  But their songs do not necessarily reflect darkness. Kander and Ebb have also created snappy buoyant melodies and joyful, even humorous lyrics. The eclectic mix performed during the revue range from tuneful, emotion-packed torch songs to comical numbers.

The quintet performing these selections consists of a multi-talented and experienced troupe: Natascia Diaz (Broadway’s Man of La Mancha and the Olney Theatre/Round House production of In The Heights); Kevin S. McAllister, who also directs this revue (Broadway's Caroline...Or Change and Come From Away); Harris Milgrim (Broadway’s Cats); Nova Y. Payton (Signature Theatre’s Into the Woods and The Color Purple); and Karen Vincent (Ford’s Theatre’s Ragtime and Into the Woods).

Natascia Diaz and Harris Milgrim

The members of this group can sing up a storm; they can dance gracefully; they do comedy well; and they can “roller skate.” Well, maybe not so much the latter as they hilariously demonstrate those skills in “The Rink” from the show with the same title.

Under the direction of Mr. McAllister, who is no stranger to directing revues at Olney as he helmed the sparkling “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” this past winter, the show is well-paced and expertly staged.  Music director and maestro Christopher Youstra with his fabulous seven-piece orchestra playing upstage throughout the show, provide the performers with superb backing and do the Kander score proud.

Each member of the company has a turn in singing solos with about half of the selections sung in combination with others or the entire company. As individuals, their vocals shine; in combination with others, they soar.

Nova Y. Payton, with her astoundingly big voice, gets the show off on a high note with her rendition of “And the World Goes ‘Round” from the film New York, New York. Another solo “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret is a showstopper. It should be noted that this ballad was not written by Kander and Ebb specifically for Cabaret but was included in the 1972 film version. It had been written in 1964 for Liza Minnelli’s debut album Liza! Liza!

As mentioned previously, director Kevin S. McAllister also performs in the troupe. Possessing a burly tenor voice, Mr. McAllister demonstrates his strong vocals in the title song from the lesser known 60’s musical The Happy Time as well as “I Don’t Remember.” His rendition of “She’s a Woman” from Kiss of the Spiderwoman is outstanding.

Karen Vincent has a lush voice and performs well throughout. Her two solos, “Colored Lights” from The Rink and “Isn’t This Better?” from Funny Lady are spot on. In a comical number “Sara Lee” that was popularized by Liza Minnelli, Ms. Vincent joins Ms. Payton and Harris Milgrim. It is a pure delight as costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka fitted the ladies in garb resembling pastries. Ms. Kulemeka did a fabulous job in outfitting the troupe in a wide variety of costumes that coincide with the applicable period.

Ms. Vincent also performs in “How Lucky Can You Get” from Funny Lady with Mr. Harris and Mr. McAllister and “There Goes The Ballgame” from New York, New York with Natascia Diaz and Ms. Payton.

Mr. Milgrim takes on many of the revue’s comedic moments and hits them out of the park. The lithe, athletic performer reminds me of a modern-day Tommy Tune. He literally shows off his fit physique in the amusing “Arthur in the Afternoon” from The Act, which is splendidly sung by Natascia Diaz.  An accomplished dancer to be sure, Mr. Milgrim has a solid tenor singing voice and can hold a note longer than an airport line.  He shines in “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from Woman of the Year, an exceptional rendition of “Mister Cellophane” from Chicago and “Marry Me” from The Rink.

Besides “Arthur in the Afternoon,” Natascia Diaz with her rich vocals performs adroitly in “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, The Red Menace. This show happened to be Kander and Ebb’s first collaboration and launched the career of Liza Minnelli who won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for the 1965 production. Ms. Diaz takes the lead in the outstanding dance number “And All That Jazz,” one of the highlights from Chicago and performs a beautifully performed extended dance number “When It All Comes True” with Mr. Milgrim.

There are a number of well-executed dance numbers that rev up the tempo of the revue. Choreographer Shalyce Hemby guides the company with precise and fluid movements in such songs as “Coffee In A Cardboard Cup” from 70, Girls, 70, “Me and My Baby” from Chicago, and “Money, Money” from Cabaret. “The Rink” concludes the first act with a roller skating “exhibition” from four of the five members of the company that is pure fun. Ms. Payton was wise to stay off the wheels for this one as she took on a different and safer role during the number.

Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger allows the performers to do their thing in a gorgeous, colorful setting. The orchestra is upstage but in certain numbers, the platform moves towards the front. There are several rectangular panels on the wall that serve as screens for projections designed by Patrick W. Lord. These projections contain a wide assortment of images that coincide with a particular song. Several personalities are seen offering tributes to Kander and Ebb. They include Chita Rivera and Dame Judi Dench among others.

Lighting Designer Aja M. Jackson adds rich hues to the optics. As a great touch, strings of footlights frame the stage, the wall panels and even the platform where the orchestra is mounted to give off a cool theatre vibe. Well done!

One does not need to be familiar with all the Kander and Ebb songs to enjoy this wonderful musical experience. More likely than not, you will recognize the real popular ones and enjoy the interpretation that is applied. For example, the production number “Cabaret” has been “jazzed up” with an enjoyable result. And there’s the surprise finale “New York, New York” with a new twist.

This production is an extraordinary tribute to the team of Kander and Ebb. Outstanding performers and orchestra with stellar work from the technical crew all under the guiding hand of Kevin S. McAllister make this a don’t miss show. Life is indeed a cabaret.

Running time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission

The World Goes ‘Round plays through May 21, 2023, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.

Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography

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