The evening begins in a smoky haze. A jazzy three-piece combo led by Stephen Neale is onstage. As Johanna Elkana Hale sings the title song from And the World Goes 'Round, a musical profile of veteran songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb at Insight Theatre Company, we might be sitting in an empty after-hours nightclub like the one where Judy Garland mourns "The Man That Got Away" in A Star Is Born.
But Kander and Ebb didn't write for Judy; they were instrumental in making a star of her daughter, Liza Minnelli. For many years there was a symbiotic relationship between Liza and these two composers who were so skilled at showing off her trumpet voice. Kander, Ebb and Minnelli all made their Broadway debuts with the 1965 musical Flora, the Red Menace. Their careers intersected again with the musicals The Act and The Rink and in the movies Cabaret and New York, New York. Kander and Ebb wrote special material for Liza's TV specials. She reciprocated by stepping into their 1975 Broadway musical Chicago for eight weeks when its star, Gwen Verdon, fell ill and the show's fate was at stake.
There's a lot of Liza in And the World Goes 'Round, but Kander and Ebb's material extends far beyond one personality. This revue's ambition is to reveal the celebrated team in its many dimensions. Specialty material ("Sara Lee") is performed in tandem with patter songs ("Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" from 70, Girls, 70). There are themed medleys about love lost ("I Don't Remember You" from The Happy Time deftly paired with "Sometimes a Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year) and love found ("Marry Me" from The Rink teamed with the gorgeous "A Quiet Thing" from Flora). Obscure songs receive an equal hearing with megahits, and almost everything is pleasantly sung — by Martin Fox, Charlie Ingram, Stephanie Long, Peter Merideth, Katy Tibbetts (she of the shimmering blouse) and the aforementioned Hale.
The revue's challenge is one of structure. With no dialogue to fill in the gaps, how do you program the songs so that by evening's end the show's impact is larger than its individual parts? The emotional build that its creators intended when this revue debuted off-Broadway in 1991 is missing here, because the current staging by Edward Coffield plays fast and loose with the song order.
At Insight we learn next to nothing about Kander and Ebb. They do not even receive a biography or photo in the playbill. On the title page, their names are printed in absurdly tiny type. It's quite possible that a casual playgoer could sit through all 90 minutes of this staging and never know the what or who — or why — of the production. Coffield employs video projections that feature disorienting photos (such as the one of Sarah Palin, who to my knowledge never sang in a Kander and Ebb musical, not even in the Wasilla Community Theater), but there's not a single image of the songwriters. The celebrated duo is more invisible than Chicago's much-lamented "Mr. Cellophane," a novelty song that is subjected here to a lugubriously heavy handling.
In fairness, on opening night one of the seven cast members did not appear. Perhaps this omission led to some of the evening's disorientation. But one missing actor does not alter a show's concept. Despite its momentary pleasures, this version of And the World Goes 'Round does not deliver a cohesive product. That haze at the outset is an apt metaphor for the entire evening. This is the revue that got away.