Mini-review – The World Goes Round – Union Theater

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Now, this is embarrassing. Faced with the difficulties of writing a review of a musical that’s, well, actually just a musical revue – a bunch of songs from other shows pulled together to make an evening – I bit the bullet and actually bought a program. Hey, I’ve got a job now, I can afford two quid.

And yet, here I am, 24 hours later, and it’s nowhere to be found. Did I leave it in the cafe? Was it under my chair? Arrgh! The Union’s website doesn’t even credit half of the cast! Right, better get the review written as quickly as possible – and my apologies in advance to the five (I think!) dancers, whom I can’t give even the slightest credit to.

The World Goes Round is, quite simply, an evening of songs by Kander and Ebb. No time to see all of their shows? I admit, it’s hard, given they have some twenty musicals to their credit. I’ve only managed eight. And yet, for me, this evening was full of incredible songwriting, a great combination of the familiar (songs from Cabaret and Chicago) and the obscure. Many of them were done as miniature plays in a song, almost in the music video format. I loved hearing so many fresh, well-written numbers given a chance to shine without all of the dross of a full evening’s story to support them. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to see 70 Girls 70 or Woman of the Year but it costs a lot of money to make even the smallest musical happen and I’m very happy just to hear the songs.)

This meant, for the first time ever, I got to get the giggles at “Sara Lee,” a paen to an imaginary chef (a la Mr Kipling), and I was able to clap and laugh at the perfection of “Ring Them Bells” (a real star turn for Emma Francis). And “Arthur in the Afternoon” – a song celebrating the psychological benefits of married woman having a bit on the side – was just hysterical, showing off Lisa Stokke (and her legs, and the smooth moves of the dancer taking the role of Arthur) to a T.

But … there was the incongruity of people dressed in evening wear singing the “Money” song. And the grating experience of “Cabaret” being done as if by a barbershop quartet, all of the content stripped in favor of some pretty harmonies. Kander and Ebb’s songs are about real human feelings, about how people don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do, about hurting, but, to me, always with a gritty, real core … not just pretty. Not people in sharp clothes talking about not having money as if they knew what it meant to be poor (although as London actors I’m sure they’ve all had the experience more than once).

And, also, not less that top drawer talent pulling off this song. Emma Francis was consistently on, but both of the men were just a bit too soft (and the bearded one seemed off key) to really punch the hard songs. And while I never thought I would say this, Susan Fay was too old to be singing so many songs about love and sex and disappointment. Despite her chestnut hair and good figure, there was something about her face that, at such quarters, looked very mid-sixties. It wasn’t working with this repetoire (and I’m almost ashamed to say it but it was distracting to me). Given the way the cast delivered professionalism but not really edginess, I got the feeling this show might have really punched it higher if the casting director had gone for a group of younger unknowns, people more hungry for success. That’s a feeling that pushes these songs forward really well.

While this show is based on where Kander and Ebb were in ’91, it means that several songs from their later ouvre were overlooked, including the many great numbers from Curtains and the fabulous tunes of The Scottsboro Boys (which admittedly would have been hard to perform with this all-white cast). Overall, the feeling was of a night which set out to basically be pleasant and entertaining … and rather sadly didn’t achieve much more. It still deserved better than the less-than-half-full house it had the night I went, though: hardly a musical in town can boast two tunes as good as any of the ones in The World Goes Round.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 22nd, 2014. It continues through February 8th.)

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