By its very nature, a musical revue requires not only good voices, but that cabaret quality of both intimacy and drama: Make every song a scene, create a context to replace the missing context of the show the song was plucked from. The 11th Hour Theatre Company, performing the Kander and Ebb compendium
The World Goes 'Round
at Walnut Studio 5, meets the challenge in novel ways, giving us a terrific first act - sometimes funny, sometimes moving - although after intermission things seem to come apart.
The stage is covered with newspaper. The upstage wall will, in the course of the show, be covered with posters and photographs and printouts as each performer tacks up another piece after each number. These provide surprising contexts, and add, retroactively, new meaning to each song. It would spoil the impact to give away too many, but just as an example, "Marry Me" becomes a parody of the TV show The Bachelor, long-stemmed red roses and all, while "All That Jazz" becomes a tearful comment on post-Katrina New Orleans.
This device doesn't always work: "New York, New York" starts out funny, with tourists singing the lyrics in a variety of languages, but then crosses the line into cheesy sentimentality by invoking 9/11. There is a jumble of references to celebrity culture, daytime TV, horror-story headlines, global warming, homelessness, the presidential election, baseball - some have a real point to make and shed new light on a familiar song, while others fall flat.
The five performers don't seem to quite mesh into an ensemble, with Melinda Bass' strident voice always heard above the rest. The great group number "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," which becomes a Starbucks satire, is the sole exception.
Michael Philip O'Brien's sweet and melodic voice doesn't seem quite suited to many of these songs, and Billy Bustamante, an excellent dancer, has nearly no choreography to work with. Alex Keiper is better at funny than tragic. Marybeth Gorman has a fine voice and real theatrical presence except when she has to horse around in a silly skit about Kiss of the Spider Woman.
With seven Barrymore nominations last season, 11th Hour Theatre Company has made a name and niche for itself in the local scene, specializing in avant-garde musicals: edgy, funny, young. So this Kander and Ebb revue, full of songs from such famous shows as Cabaret, Chicago, Funny Lady, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and New York, New York, seems to force them to step away from their spot. It's all old-time mainstream, and not their strength.
That said, however, there is much to enjoy here - musically and theatrically.
The World Goes 'Round
Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson. Directed by Steve Pacek. Sets by Adam Riggar. Presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company.
Cast: Melinda Bass, Billy Bustamante, Marybeth Gorman, Alex Keiper, Michael Philip O'Brien.
Playing at: Walnut Studio 5, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Through Dec. 30. Tickets $20-$25. Information: 267-987-9865 or www.11thhourtheatrecompany.