The most compelling reason to see First You Dream at Signature (which should be more than enough) is the combination of six protean performers, an amazing 19-piece orchestra, and terrific material well supported by clear direction, efficient choreography and top-rate sound and lights. And the worst seat at Signature offers a more intimate, direct performance experience than a seat mid-way in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower’s Theater or a Broadway house.
If the Nationals* hit it out of the park as often as this team does, we’d have a World Series team.** Each of the six cast members is wonderfully showcased and shines often. Norm Lewis scores early as a charming song-and-dance man in Sara Lee and is a surging force of nature in a medley of Love and Love Alone and Life Is. (I do have to admit, though, that his previous work as Sweeney is so deeply etched in my mind that part of me kept expecting him to eventually wield a razor.***) Matthew Scott’s medley of Cabaret and I Miss the Music (from Curtains) was absolutely riveting and James Clow easily travels from comic (Every Day of the Week) to touching (My Own Space).
On the distaff sides, Eleasha Gamble had a tremendously affecting and powerful take on City Lights. Watching Julia Murney’s choices was like a master-class in acting, whether it was capturing the focused ambiguity of the character in Colored Lights, portraying a cocaine-addled murderess in the Cell Block Tango, or communicating blunt emotional directness in The Money Tree. And Heidi Blickenstaff, Heidi Blickenstaff, Heidi Blickenstaff !!!!! It’s not just residual goodwill from [title of show] that has me doing cartwheels, but this emotional belter (Maybe This Time) showed she can find interesting new moments in material that has been long (over)done. Several of her choices in Ring Them Bells just had me cheering in their freshness and immediacy.
It’s hard not to make this write-up a laundry list of all the terrific moments, and I really had to edit – there’s more great work you’ll be able to discover for yourself.
It says something about the priority of the production that the 19-piece orchestra took up ¾ of the stage. They sounded great and they had several terrific featured spots in the show. And at the show I saw, the audience sat through the exit music.
That orchestra was placed on black risers, very much like the set of the revival of Chicago. Part of me hopes that this is part of a brilliant marketing plan by director Eric Shaeffer to produce a show that can play on the set of Chicago on off-nights.
Of course, these performers don’t look good in a vacuum. And part of the best work that the production team was to let the performances look organic, so one didn’t really know what came from the director and what came from the performer. Similarly, the choreography kept people organized, had a couple of brilliant moments (particularly re-imagining the song Boom Ditty Boom from 70 Girls, 70 as a war between the sexes), and never made the performers look like they were over-extending themselves. Also, it’s easy for things to get lost on the very wide stage in that space, and the focus between the staging and lighting was terrific.
So, let’s get to the quibbles.
My biggest complaint about the show is structural. I didn’t generally understand why the numbers were chosen, or how one thing led to another. The rhythm of the first act was showstopper, showstopper, showstopper. While no one can argue that it’s entertaining, it also meant that there was a certain lack of emotional momentum, something that was much better in the second act.
Also, the way the show was structured and the choice of material didn’t give me any new insights into the work or worldview of Kander and Ebb. On paper, First You Dream seemed like a great song to build a Kander and Ebb revue around, since their work is so full of dreamers – Sally Bowles, Roxie Hart, Molina to name but three. But since dreamers and dreaminess wasn’t the thrust of the piece, the song doesn’t have the heft to support the piece. In most cases, the orchestrations used for the material sounded interchangeable from the original theatrical versions. Where I found the show most artistically successful were in moments such as the Cabaret/I Miss the Music Medley, a trio of songs about the movies, and the re-though Boom Ditty Boom was where the creative team put their own ideas about the material very far forward. And part of the problem of keeping the show on such high octane was that it doesn’t leave much room to build a huge, explosive finish. Even so, Show People from Curtains felt like an anemic choice for a closer.****
I have to recognize a previous comment on this blog that complained about the material selections in the show, citing them as obscure. When I got to the theater, I was surprised about that criticism because in the first act alone had such Kander and Ebb chestnuts as Ring Them Bells, Sara Lee, City Lights, Sing Happy. However, when going to intermission, I was reminded of this opinion when the gentlemen behind me were bemoaning the fact that the songs in the first act were “OK, nothing great” and that all the “good” songs from Chicago and Cabaret were being saved for Act II. The previous comment also bemoaned that the songs New York, New York and Cabaret were given short shrift. And I have to say that if you are someone who lives for those two songs, it’s perfectly valid that you’ll leave this production disappointed in the way they were presented.
And of course sitting there in the theater, I found myself congratulating the team for certain choices (The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree from The Rink as the “caustic female duet” rather than The Grass Is Always Greener from Woman of the Year). And of course there are songs that I wish had been chosen – wouldn’t we all love seeing Julia Murney do Everybody’s Girl? But that illustrates, in its own Zen-like way, the advantages and disadvantages of trying to do a revue of a songbook with the depth and breadth of Kander and Ebb’s oeuvre.
*I’m really not that much of a sports fan as the blog recently seems to suggest.
**However, they don’t do There Goes the Ball Game
***Spoiler alert – he doesn’t.
****It’s not even the closer for Curtains