The premiere presentation for the inaugural Broadway Cabaret Festival was “Life Is a Cabaret,” a tribute to Broadway songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb. Briskly structured evening offered highlights from a dozen Kander & Ebb musicals, linked by a witty and informative narrative written and delivered by producer Scott Siegel.
Ebb, who died last year, crafted lyrics of sentiment and humor. The buoyant celebration of one’s existence being realized so fully in “Life Is” made for a fervent opening by Brett Barrett, while Sharon McNight praised the bakery shelves packed with the yummy pastries from the ovens of “Sara Lee.” The satire written as a cabaret patter song extols a bounty of frozen desserts, and McNight made it a savory delight.
Kander’s insinuating music always provided an infectious counterbalance to Ebb’s words with a rhythmic lilt. The collaborative result was best defined by a foxy Belle Callaway, who essayed the saucy delights of “Roxie,” and Jim Caruso’s celebration of a “Second Chance” from “Steel Pier,” a 1997 musical misstep that deserved a better reception than it received.
Caruso also sang “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” from “70, Girls, 70,” which will be performed by Encores! later this season. In a salute to the older set, the song addressed the problems of the world before the invasion of Starbucks.
A stately Rachel York was far and away the evening’s shining showstopper. In sumptuous black lace, the leggy chanteuse sang “Maybe This Time,” a song that had been kicked around hither and yon before becoming comfortably nested in the film version of “Cabaret.” York also revealed the intrinsic cynical core and sense of hope that fuels “The World Goes Round.”
The hot, sexual imagery that is a signature of Kander-Ebb musicals was never more apparent than in “Mein Herr.” In steamy scanties and trademark fedora, with a black ice cream parlor chair that might have been the envy of every red-blooded male in the house, Rachelle Rak re-created the original Bob Fosse choreography that personified seduction. Just as hot was “Where You Are” from “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” with Bobby Pestka and James Kinney joining Rak as bookends to execute some torrid terping.
Twenty songs barely scratch the surface of the amazing Kander & Ebb legacy (with a few more unproduced works waiting in the wings). For the time being, Siegel and his band of gypsies and stars captured the essence of all that fun, all that fervor and all that jazz with considerable distinction.