With “First You Dream,” Signature Theater’s long-running relationship with the music of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb has taken another inventive turn to open its 20th season. The company has packaged an eclectic selection of numbers from 15 K&E shows and films into a delightful revue that practically screams “tour me” — which is precisely what its execs have in mind.
On the heels of last season’s three-show K&E festival (“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Visit” and “The Happy Time”), Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer has assembled a gifted group of artists to compile and stage this collection. David Loud (musical supervision) and William David Brohn (orchestrations) lead the Schaeffer-directed production, with a 19-piece orchestra and six terrific voices, most of them with Broadway credits — Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Eleasha Gamble, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney and Matthew Scott. Composer Kander has been on hand throughout to assist.
The result is an impressively presented showcase from the duo that gave us “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and numerous other gifts. The energetic and sure-footed sextet leaves nothing behind.
Indeed, it’s all about the music here. Positioned in three tiers on a bare stage, the hefty orchestra conducted by music director Jon Kalbfleisch leads the vibrant lineup. On an otherwise bare stage, twin staircases enable the vocalists to enter and perform among the musicians, with sparing but appropriate help from choreographer Karma Camp.
Every number has been reorchestrated by Brohn, frequently pairing unrelated selections, beginning with the opener — “Leave the World Behind” and “First You Dream” from “Steel Pier.”
Show opens with a touching video featuring reflections by Ebb, who died five years ago. He reminisces about his long collaboration with Kander, their differing styles and personalities and their ability to make musical magic.
From the tuner “Flora the Red Menace” comes the amusing “Not Every Day of the Week,” sung by Clow and Murney in a pretend elevator. Another first-act highlight is “All I Need (Is One Good Break),” also from “Flora,” performed by the full company. Two songs from “The Happy Time” and “Woman of the Year” — “I Don’t Remember You” and “Sometimes a Day Goes By” — are beautifully sung by Lewis and Scott, while Blickenstaff closes act one with a powerful “Ring Them Bells” from “Liza With a Z.”
Other songs are plucked from “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Rink,” “The Act” and “The Visit.” From “All About Us” is the highly entertaining “Military Man,” sung by the guys with extreme precision.
The writing team’s favorites are included, mostly in the second act. Tenor Scott delivers a zesty version of “Cabaret,” paired with “I Miss the Music” from “Curtains.” Blickenstaff and Murney make the most of two other numbers from “Cabaret” — “Maybe This Time” and “I Don’t Care Much,” respectively. From “Chicago” comes the full company doing “Razzle Dazzle” and “Cell Block Tango.” And what would a K&E tribute be without “New York, New York” (exuberantly belted by Gamble)?
“First You Dream” is a welcome showcase of the songwriting duo’s astounding versatility, too often hidden within seldom produced shows. Not only will it enchant audiences, it should be required viewing for today’s crop of budding composers, many of whom have yet to master the art of the tuneful score so ably demonstrated here.