James Rocco (right) and Raymond Berg (right) in Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz.
In the latest in the Broadway Songbook series, James Rocco and company explore Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz, the songs and stylings of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, the creative team responsible for many of the shows and songs synonymous with American musical theater since the 1960s. There are worse ways to commemorate the weekend of the Tony Awards than with a revue of two of musical theater’s 20th-century titans.
Rocco, the Ordway’s vice president of programming and producing artistic director, hosts an evening of songs and stories from Kander and Ebb spanning the past half century. (Ebb passed away in 2004, which surprisingly hasn’t stopped the pair from having three new shows that they wrote together being produced posthumously.). The evening affair’s script was written by Rocco and Jeffrey P. Scott, with musical direction by Raymond Berg. Curating the songs for an evening such as this means balancing the crowd-pleasing favorites with the unexpected renditions and forgotten gems, and Kander and Ebb’s catalogue is probably uniquely suited to the Broadway Songbook series. In their work with Liza Minelli (her Broadway debut in Flora the Red Menace, The Act, Liza with a Z, and more) and Chita Rivera (Chicago, The Rink alongside Minelli, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and 2015’s The Visit), K&E created enough self-contained showstoppers and torch ballads to fill probably a week’s worth of songbook evenings. Plus, the pair wrote a lot of “shows about show business” and styled many of their musicals after forms like vaudeville and cabaret (Chicago and, well, Cabaret), in which the numbers float above and comment on the main action rather than driving it (making them more satisfying perform out of context, too).
Kander and Ebb wrote one of the most iconic songs about welcoming an audience to the show, becoming a signature for performers like Joel Grey and Alan Cumming, so naturally the Broadway Songbook evening opened with… [drumroll] “Life Is” from Zorba. Nope, no wilkommen, no bienvenue, it’s not that kind of night. This does set the tone for the evening, letting the audience know that, with a handful of exceptions in the second act, we will be focusing on, shall we say, the “deep cuts.” While some may be disappointed that Rocco, Scott, and Berg put fewer favorites in the program, Kander and Ebb have as much currently underappreciated work to choose from as they do classics.
The evening allows space for Kander and Ebb’s lesser known or perhaps more forgotten shows, such as 70, Girls, 70 or the more recent Curtains, the first show produced after Ebb’s death (the show was knocked a bit out of the limelight that season by a little musical called Spring Awakening). One of the early highlights of the evening is Caroline Innerbichler’s gentle rendition of “A Quiet Thing,” showing the songwriting team’s mastery of delicate moments as much as the bombastic ones. Innerbichler’s tender performance is followed by another of the evening’s highlights, Thomasina Petrus, whose vibrant vocals and inexhaustible stage presence breathe new life and depth into each of the numbers she performs. It is Petrus who leads the company in the evening’s finale, too, managing to find new colors and moments in “All That Jazz” through the very end.
Joining Rocco, Petrus, and Innerbichler onstage (along with Berg leading the band) are a group of equally assured performers. Zoe Pappas captures a commanding and endearing quality in each of her performances, sharing a charming rendition of “The Grass Is Always Greener” with Reid Harmsen. Harmesen happens to be purveyor of the strongest shimmy on display, accompanied by the sparkling Lisa Bartholomew-Given in an energetic performance of “Money (Makes the World Go Round).” Bartholomew-Given provided the choreography for the evening, capably reproducing the Reinking-Fosse “Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago alongside Innerbichler to close Act I.
Cast members shine individually and as an ensemble, creating an abbreviated version of Curtains in a selection of songs from the show, again showcasing the winning characterizations of Petrus, Innerbichler, and Harmesen. Shouldering probably the most well-known standard of the night is Rocco himself, giving new warmth to “New York, New York” and inviting both the band and the audience to join him in enjoyment of the music. John Brink, with the set shoulders and middle-distance stare of someone fresh off a national tour of Les Miz, leads the company in the evening’s penultimate number, “The Day After That,” evoking all of the pain and resistance and hope and struggle explored in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, the 1993 Tony winner for Best Musical. (Can someone revive this show already, please?)
Inviting the audience in is what the Broadway Songbook series is all about, and though the Ordway Musical Theater feels a bit big for the intimate, clubby vibe of the performance, at no point did the performances feel too small for the room or removed from the people watching them. Next season, the Broadway Songbook series will settle into the Ordway Concert Hall, which should be a good fit for both the performers and audience members devoted to this series. The Broadway Songbook series is now rounding out its fifth year – a healthy number, and a definite milestone saying that Rocco & Co. should continue acquainting audiences with this side of Broadway.
This installment of the Broadway Songbook Series plays through June 12 (2 pm) at the Ordway Music Theater.