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Review: Cabaret with ukuleles — Kander and Ebb classics keep spinning as 'The World Goes 'Round'

Review: Cabaret with ukuleles — Kander and Ebb classics keep spinning as 'The World Goes 'Round'
The cast of Reprise 2.0's "The World Goes 'Round," from left: Dawnn Lewis, Michael Starr, Kelley Dorney, Larry Cedar and Valerie Perri. (Michael Lamont)

As its second presentation, the revived Reprise 2.0 is offering a John Kander-Fred Ebb cabaret. Not their “Cabaret,” mind you. Lowercase cabaret.

The show is “The World Goes ‘Round,” a small-scale 1991 revue that played off-Broadway and toured, making a stop at L.A.’s Henry Fonda Theatre in 1992. It’s all songs, some dance, almost no dialogue and no plot — just themes built of tunes from the Kander and Ebb repertoire. The songs are pulled from their best-known musicals, “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” and lesser remembered ones such as “The Act” and “Woman of the Year,” as well as the films “New York, New York” and “Funny Lady.”

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The team that put this show together in the early-’90s — director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and writer David Thompson — is now storied, but back then they were still fledglings. They had joined forces for a much-buzzed-about revival of Kander and Ebb’s freshman show, “Flora, the Red Menace,” and enjoyed the songwriters so much that they devised a way to work with them again.

With Stroman — the now-multi-Tony Award winner for such shows as “Crazy for You” and “The Producers” — on the team, you’d better bet that the dances were lively, inventive and fun. She had the cast of five on roller skates or strumming banjos and otherwise gliding across the stage as though they were Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.

There were quite a few typical cabaret-style numbers too, i.e., stand (or sit) and sing, but they felt more the exception than the rule. In Reprise’s edition — staged by director Richard Israel (so masterful with Actors Co-op’s recent “Violet”) and choreographer John Todd — the reverse is true. It breaks into full-on movement sparingly.

Although not as visually interesting, this focuses attention on the voices and interpretative skills of the performers, and, fortunately, the singers here are well worth a listen.

Dawnn Lewis in Reprise 2.0's production of "The World Goes Round."
Dawnn Lewis in Reprise 2.0's production of "The World Goes Round." (Michael Lamont)

Essentially, they are teams. There are veteran performers: Dawnn Lewis, the torchy siren; Valerie Perri, the comic chanteuse; and Larry Cedar, the all-purpose funny guy. They sing as the voices of experience. The young-love songs are given to up-and-comers: Kelley Dorney as the spitfire (or slinky) ingenue and Michael Starr as the go-getter.

Ebb’s lyrics are crisp, often funny — and to the point, slick yet emotionally deep. The singers approach them as little stories in song. Kander’s music is lively, lush and exceedingly catchy, at once inevitable and wondrously complex. The jazzy seven-member band, led by Gerald Sternbach at the piano, provides sultriness or drive, as suits the occasion. The song arrangements — David Krane’s orchestrations and David Loud’s vocal and dance tunings — have always been a particular delight, and they sound terrific here.

So maybe “The World Goes ‘Round” isn’t the typical pulled-from-the-vaults, full-on musical for which Reprise is known, and maybe you would rather be watching the originally announced “Victor/Victoria,” which this is replacing. Still: There’s plenty of entertainment here.

To help put the audience in the proper mood, scenic designer Stephen Gifford turns the stage into an elegant, wood-paneled nightclub with a slightly elevated bandstand. Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg paints it with a late-night chiaroscuro of moody spotlights and lots of shadows.

Between off-Broadway and the tour, the song lineup changed a bit in the early ’90s, and here, Israel has moved a handful of tunes around and eliminated three.

Valerie Perri in Reprise 2.0's production of "The World Goes Round."
Valerie Perri in Reprise 2.0's production of "The World Goes Round." (Michael Lamont)

Of the 27 songs on the program, the one surest to get a rise out of the audience is “Class” (from “Chicago”), in which a pair of been-around-the-block gals share their exasperation at society’s general decline. It’s staged here with Lewis and Perri separately perusing newspapers and making guttural sounds of disgust, then meeting up to deliver the opening line: “Whatever happened to fair dealing / and pure ethics and nice manners?” Within moments, the audience is making plenty of sounds of its own.

One of the still-dance-y numbers is “Me and My Baby” (also from “Chicago”), which instead of banjos pulled from bassinets is performed with ukuleles. The idea of what constitutes a “baby” is humorously toyed with as Starr enters cradling what looks like an infant and Perri nuzzles what looks like a cat, but soon, these are tossed aside — literally — and traded for the small, stringed cuties, which all five cast members proceed to strum and rhythmically slap.

The song lineup dates back to Kander and Ebb’s meeting in 1962 and their early specialty numbers “Sara Lee” and “My Coloring Book,” advancing as far as the era in which the show was created with the title song of the then-in-development “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” So there are no later songs from such shows as “Steel Pier” or “The Visit.” Ebb died in 2004; Kander is 91.

We theater geeks in the audience are especially energized to hear songs from the all-but-vanished shows “70, Girls, 70” and “The Rink” — or the written-for-Liza Minnelli story song “Ring Them Bells.”

Whether presented as solos or ensemble numbers, the songs shine (especially the change-it-up, close-harmony-jazz rendition of the title song from “Cabaret”). Just keep your expectations in check and, to borrow a phrase from one of “The Rink’s” songs, “we can make it fine.”

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The World Goes ’Round’

Where: UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sept. 9, 2 and 7 p.m. Sept. 16; ends Sept. 16

Tickets: $30-$110

Info: (800) 982-2787, Reprise2.org

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes; one intermission

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