As Director Kirk Jameson’s own programme notes attest, even those bizarre creatures who claim that they ‘don’t do musical theatre’ would have to acknowledge the creative genius of, and contribution made by, John Kander and Fred Ebb. Hidden behind a clever veil of razzmatazz are songs and lyrics full of punch, grit and flair, often showcasing 1930s US and Europe for all its warty injustice and excess, but also the love and fun that could be had. Most recently, The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s last collaboration before Ebb’s death in 2004, electrified the Young Vic stage with a true tale of 30s Deep South barbarism.
The World Goes ‘Round is a retrospective look at the writers’ work, for fans by fans, 28 songs, some better known than others, that glide seamlessly into each other within the Union Theatre’s intimate space. I don’t think it is being too harsh or unkind to say that most of the principal performers won’t see 45 again, and so, for me at least, it was a little jarring to begin with to hear songs (perfectly executed) sung by people older than the songs were written for. A case in point would be Maybe This Time, so associated with a young Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, about perseverance and resilience in the face of constant knock-backs, is given a completely new context when sung by someone older.
This raises an interesting point, and a potential difficulty for a director of future Kander and Ebb performances: how to avoid association with actors who have previously made these fantastic roles so their own, such as Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Oscar winning Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret, or even Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago? These roles can often be a poisoned chalice, akin to Fagin in Oliver! or Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One answer could be the way Jameson deconstructs iconic numbers, such as Cabaret, which is split between all the principal figures (although I wasn’t convinced by this if I’m honest; I’d rather hear it belted out at full whack by a soloist…) and New York, New York, sung in a variety of European languages (more successful).
If at times the leads resemble a bunch of dinner party guests having a nice singsong in the living room after a couple of bottles of Merlot, it is the ensemble that help carry the piece. The five-strong team lend necessary glamour and a touch of Fosse-esque choreography to proceedings, injecting some youth and energy into numbers which may otherwise feel a little, well, lacklustre. Elliot Berry in particular is dynamic and engaging, especially when playing the gigolo in Arthur in the Afternoon, a fun little song which again displays Kander and Ebb’s range in terms of their creative output.
The World Goes ‘Round is an enjoyable little piece that will appeal to Kander and Ebb loyalists. Which is enough, I suppose.
The World Goes ‘Round is at the Union Theatre until 8 February. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.