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Review: Director Scott Cooper Guides Another Winner with SPC Theater Department's Production of THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND: THE MUSIC OF KANDER & EBB

A Stellar Musical Revue

Review: Director Scott Cooper Guides Another Winner with SPC Theater Department's Production of THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND: THE MUSIC OF KANDER & EBB

I needed this. After being denied my theatre fix for well over a year due to the pandemic, it's good to be back.

One thing I have always looked forward to each July is the SPC summer show; the last ones that I attended--the incomparable Urinetown and the joyous Pippin--made my year-end top 10 list two years in a row. But there was sadly no live, in-person summer show for 2020. Thankfully, theatre has now returned, and SPC, led by their visionary director Scott Cooper, has done it again with another incredible summer production. After the performance, after the applause and the standing ovation had died down, I realized how much I actually needed to see this show.

This year's St. Petersburg College Theater Department experience is THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND: THE MUSIC OF KANDER & EBB, a musical revue of one of the most important and enduring songwriting teams in history. Even if you don't know the names John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), then you certainly know their two most famous shows: Cabaret and Chicago, both lively yet dark musicals with heavy themes. (Chicago currently holds the record as the longest running Broadway revival in history and the second longest running Broadway show of all time, besting Cats but still behind Phantom of the Opera.) But the duo has so many other shows that, if not as famous as the two masterworks, are almost as good: The Happy Time, Woman of the Year, Funny Lady (the film), 70 Girls 70, The Rink, Flora the Red Menace, The Act, Zorba and, one of my personal favorites, Kiss of the Spider Woman. However, Kander and Ebb are probably best known for scribing the ultimate NYC anthem, "New York, New York."

Calling THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND a mere revue seems incorrect, almost belittling. That's akin to calling a meal at Bern's just another steak dinner. It's so much more than that. This is a musical celebration, a Kander and Ebb party, with songs of hope and despair, love and longing, pleasure and pain, the scrumptiousness of desserts and the effects of too much coffee consumption. There's even a mayhemic number on roller skates. It's uplifting at times, sorrowful at others, but always entertaining.

Many of the songs presented are lesser-known K & E numbers. But don't worry, such iconic songs as "All That Jazz," "Maybe This Time," "Cabaret," and "New York, New York" are also spotlighted, so there's something for everyone. It's a fast-paced production--one classic song, followed by the next, followed by another--without much of a breather between numbers. You will not look at your watch once during its two-hour run time.

It helps to have one terrifically talented cast. Here's where this production shines the brightest. The following young performers, some of whom I have seen in past SPC shows, each have their moment or two, or three, to showcase their goods, to strut their stuff, to show off their awesome talents: Ashlyn Baralt, Asya Basden, Jason Calzon, Ramiro Capano, Matt Greer, Ella Jurusz, Maria Lara, Hope Lelekacs, Stephany Levi, Graham Mastro, and Matthew Morris. That's one killer ensemble.

Each cast member excels, bringing the songs to life with glorious vocals, creative choreography, strong stage presence, and so much heart and soul.

The show opens with Ashlyn Baralt in a single spotlight, nicely singing the song "But the World Goes 'Round" from the 1977 Martin Scorsese movie New York, New York. When the curtain opens to show off the incredible set behind her, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. You know your set is something special, something above the rest, when the audience hoots and hollers its introduction. Yes, it's yet another Scott Cooper set design winner; this one is so impressive that it makes you want to cuss. With Kander and Ebb's name in huge block letters hovering above the construction, it features piano keyboards as columns, with each K & E show title peppered around it. (When a number is performed, the title of the specific show from which it comes is lit on the wall.) It's a bravura piece of work, one that succeeds both aesthetically and functionally, with the cast members moving about its every nook and cranny. This certainly will be the one to beat for Set of the Year.

"Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," from the musical 70, Girls, 70, is the first show-stopper in a production with several numbers I deem worthy of being labeled "show-stopping." It's an ode to coffee, but mainly an ode to the jittery effects of caffeine, with the cast getting zanier and crazier, faster and faster, the more coffee they consume.

One of my favorite numbers of the night is "Colored Lights," from the musical The Rink, hauntingly sung by Stephany Levi, who I remember from Urinetown a few years back. This one is brilliantly realized and acted, with the lights around her turning yellow, pink, blue, green and red; I found myself mesmerized throughout it. Gorgeous work.

I will now sing the praises of Matthew Morris and his stellar, hilariously memorable work on "Sara Lee" from The Act. It's like his very own sweet-tooth version of "Make Em Laugh," where he wiggles his legs in excitement over pastries and cakes, and even moonwalks at one point. Throughout it, actual Sara Lee boxes are paraded onstage, some of them filling a grocery cart. This number by itself is worth the price of admission.

I enjoyed Hope Lelekacs' work on "Arthur in the Afternoon" (from The Act) and Ashlyn Baralt's version of "My Coloring Book," which didn't come from a previous show but became an actual Billboard Hot 100 hit for Sandy Stewart in 1963. These were followed by Matt Greer's vibrant "I Don't Remember You" from The Happy Time and Ramiro Capano's lovely "Sometimes a Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year. This latter number was beautifully staged, with Ramiro facing the audience, spotlighted, while Greer's back is to us, also bathed in light.

The Chicago numbers work well enough, but we've seen them before. That said, the amazing Asya Basden and Maria Lara perform "All That Jazz" for all its worth, and Ashlyn Baralt and Ella Jurusz make the most of "Class," a number originally cut from Chicago. Best of all is Ramiro Capano's "Mr. Cellophane," an ode to the invisible souls out there. His work with a misbegotten spotlight was positively endearing.

The songs from Funny Lady--"How Lucky Can You Get?" sung by Stephany Levi and "Isn't This Better" by Maria Lara, both giving knockout performances--fare better here than the original (not very good) movie.

Act 1 ends with a roller skating fiasco, a joyous fiasco at that, from The Rink. This number gave me instant PTSD (no, not from recalling Starlight Express). This act forced me to remember the one and only time I ever roller skated and wound up breaking my leg in a church gymnasium (don't ask). It's certainly fun to watch, but I worried one of those performers would have followed my accident-prone lead from years ago where I ended up fracturing my tibia and fibula.

And now I must celebrate the next show-stopping moment, occurring early in Act 2--Jason Calzon's solo with "Kiss of the Spider Woman." He hits every emotional note here, menacing and exciting, an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride in a single tune. I recall Calzon's Chip from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee years ago; he's was quite good there. But nothing could prepare me for his work here. This is an out of the park homerun, and it easily earned the night's longest sustained applause from the audience.

The solid Graham Mastro and Maria Lara do nice work with their Zorba duet, "Only Love," and Ms. Lara and Stephany Levi are so likable in their rich gal/poor gal duet, "The Grass is Always Greener" from Woman of the Year.

The pleasing song "Pain," about the body aches of dancers, ends with the cast literally in casts as well as crutches, neck braces and wheelchairs.

Ella Jurusz performs "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret as if her life depended on it; she perfectly builds the song like a house of cards, quiet at first, and then slowly setting it up, finally arriving at a desperate climax that rattled the ceiling. Spellbinding.

The version of the iconic song "Cabaret," with the opening well-sung by Matt Greer, becomes a heavenly glory as an ensemble number with out-of-this-world harmonies, sounding like a Manhattan Transfer song from the 1970's. "Cabaret" was my choice for the #1 slot in my BWW article last year entitled "The 101 Greatest Showtunes of All Time," and I have never heard it performed like this. Stunning.

And THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND ends with "New York, New York" sung in different languages. I like that, during curtain call, the final gesture of the cast is a salute to the names that hover above them, the giants whose genius we've been experiencing all night, John Kander and Fred Ebb. So many great songs, memorable moments, ultimately leaving the audience breathless. It's a joyous evening, the exuberance of these performers showcasing their greatest gift--themselves.

By the way, having a physical paper program with all the names and musical numbers is a big help; there are a lot of songs to wade through. For the actor's bios, there's an online program for that information. Regarding these programs, whether in hand or online, there should be something written, a director's note or a biography of some kind, to put the works of Kander and Ebb in perspective. Many audience members don't know who these songwriting giants are, and this would certainly help. Also, interestingly, I have seen the title of this show written as AND THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND, but the program for this particular production takes out the conjunction and is only known as THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND.

The students mounted this production in only four weeks; that's four weeks of rehearsals, creating the costumes, building the set, all of this done by the students. These behind-the-scenes tech gods and goddesses need to be applauded, celebrated, and mentioned here: Eric Haak, Nathan Doyle, Tea Roberts, Abigail Willis, Demetri Rath, Mayah Fortier, Julia Ball, Zoel Ortega, Erika Bruzual, Sydney Hayes, Jake Landherr, Brett Glisson, Chloe Mastro, Autumn McNew, Jay Overlin and Jacob Roland.

At the forefront of all of this is Scott Cooper, who never fails to razzle-dazzle with his direction. What sets him apart from so many other directors is that he carries both torches--the technical eye and the emotional heart. Aptly aided by Latoya McCormick's marvelous music direction, Lyla Menkhaus' clever choreography, costume designer Katrina Stevenson, lighting designer Celeste Silsby-Mannerud, assistant director Thomas Rowell, and production stage manager Chloe Dipaolo, Scott Cooper once again has guided his group of talented warriors into one hell of a moving, thrilling, never-want-it-to-end evening of theatre.

After such a downer of a year, a pandemic that helped quell art, we realized that theatre has proven itself to be essential to our lives, a necessity. Absence made the heart grow fonder. And a show like THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND is the welcome-back that we've been craving. As I mentioned earlier, I needed this. Chances are, so do you.

The last performance of THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND at the SPC Theatre in Clearwater is Sunday, July 11th at 2:00 PM.

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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