“Life is a Cabaret, old chum” belts one of John Kander and Fred Ebb's most famous standards, a sentiment that's sadly missing from this part revue-part cabaret that celebrates the life and work of two of Broadway's most prolific and musically rich composers. Presented in the ever uncomfortable cabaret setting of the St James Studio, this production isn't quite clear what it wants to be. There's no attempt to embrace the setting and feel like a welcoming cabaret, instead a fourth wall is erected and the five highly able performers throw everything they have at it, turning what should be a rich revue into something resembling a final year drama school showcase, complete with rolled up shirts and waistcoats.
That said, the vocal performances are impressively tight, and in the case of at least two of the soloists – exceptionally sung. Debbie Kurup is outstanding as always, landing the two show stoppers “All That Jazz” and “Maybe This Time” with the required energy they need, and proves the most likeable and affable to watch. Steffan Lloyd-Evans blends charm and humour and manages to most convey the sentiment behind the more intricate numbers.
What's lacking is any coherent sense of character within the piece, or journey from start to finish. Loosely held together by the title song, each number is delivered in isolation – there is plenty of light but not enough shade to make some of Kander and Ebb's darker numbers really land. The cast aren't supported by a lighting design that casts dark shadows on their eyes – not once do we see the whites of their eyes or feel that personal connection, which is a crying shame in a venue of this size.
It's full of middle-distance staring and 'smell the fart' acting that ultimately feels shallow – I simply didn't believe so many of the numbers wherein Ebb has crafted such careful emotional arcs and narratives, and it was a shame to see these more intimate numbers overshadowed by the splashier and perhaps more familiar vamps from 'Chicago' and 'Cabaret'. I felt the cast were let down in part by the lack of direction both within individual songs and the piece as a whole – whilst their performances were musically spot on, as an ensemble it was sadly a case of five actors in search of a director.
The complete lack of staging really lets the piece down, and it's hard to believe that director and choreographer extraordinaire Susan Stroman was initially responsible for curating the piece as a celebration of two musical theatre giants. True, space is tight, but the most choreography came from the never ending movement of the telescopic mic stands that quickly became tiresome.
As a revue, the piece certainly unearths some gems, blending the more well-known with outstanding numbers from shows such as 'The Happy Time' and 'Women of the Year'. Not a number is wasted, each song has a right to exist out of context and the five performers bring a good sense of vocal variety to each of their songs. Looking at how many revues exist to celebrate Sondheim, it's hard to believe that this is the definitive exploration of Kander and Ebb's work. I certainly can't wait for an updated version using songs from later classics such as 'The Scottsboro Boys' and 'The Visit'.
The band were exceptional, and it's clear that this production has been fiercely well rehearsed at least as far as the music is concerned. Sat centre stage (?) was reed player Rhiannon Jeffreys, who gets my award for performance of the evening, playing five instruments effortlessly and delivering the much needed flavour that makes John Kander's music so unique. I found myself transfixed by her performance, and whether or not the centre stage spot was a fortuitous error, she certainly earned her place there.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend you “put down your knitting, your book and your broom”, but at best this is a gentle reminder of the sheer brilliance of an imitable song-writing duo, performed by five highly talented and easily watchable performers.