The World Goes ’Round

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday July 12, 2011

Leigh Barrett and Shannon Lee Jones in ’The World Goes ’Round,’ continuing through July 31 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.
Leigh Barrett and Shannon Lee Jones in ’The World Goes ’Round,’ continuing through July 31 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.   (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The New Repertory Theatre celebrates summer with a sparkling array of songs by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. "The World Goes Round" offers drama, uplift, and lots of laughter.

The show isn't a play so much as an event: A buffet of songs that remind us why Kander, the musician, and Ebb, the lyricist, were one of the finest songwriting teams since Gilbert and Sullivan. As conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson, the program links many of the songs into vignettes that seamlessly lead one into another, as in a clever triptych centered around memory and nostalgia consisting of "My Coloring Book" (sung by Leigh Barrett), "I Don't Remember You" (sung by De'Lon Grant), and "Sometimes A Day Goes By," sung by David Costa.

Similarly, a touching romance plays out with "Marry Me," sung by David Costa to Aimee Doherty, "A Quiet Thing," in which Doherty's character ponders his offer, and their duet, "When It All Comes True."

But the show is not formatted like a series of greatest hits pressed into service of a tacked-on plot. That would most likely have been a mistake. Rather, the format is looser of limb, and when songs do not string together the presentation still tells us a little story with props and acting, in many cases, rather than simply giving us a singer and a spotlight.

Aimee Doherty's rendition of "And the World Goes 'Round" starts the show off and sets a tone of easy elegance. From there, the set list pops with delights: the entire cast gets the caffeine jitters in "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," Barrett delivers a torchy "Colored Lights," Costa serves up a tasty "Sara Lee" with the help of his cast mates and some delectably a propos props, and Jones plays a bored housewife in "Arthur in the Afternoon," with Grant filling the role of Arthur.

Robbins takes on the choreography as well as the direction, and wisely keeps it to a generous minimum. The action is funny and expressive, but not too elaborate -- a blessing for the cast, who only had eight days of rehearsal You'd never know it, judging from the way they pull off their moves.

That's not to say that the show is reserved or physically static. Rather, it's flowing and graceful; a little soft-shoe here, some physical comedy there, and always a sense that we're watching fully formed characters in action.

Where the lack of rehearsal time is a little noticeable is in the way the five voices do not always blend. While the cast does unquestionably outstanding work on the comic numbers, there are other times when they don't sound like an ensemble; they sound like five different performers with five different voices and styles. There are also times when the dramatic songs don't create or sustain the needed tension to give a frisson or a thrill.

Those, however, are only intermittent problems. It's much more the case than not that the show soars, blending elements that audiences love with fresh frills and twists all along the way. "All That Jazz" seems to have the ghost of Bob Fosse hovering over it; similarly, "Mr. Cellophane" hearkens right back to the show it comes from, "Chicago," though Costa makes it his own. The comic numbers are all propulsively funny: Ebb's lyrics dance right along with the cast, and Kander's music is fraught with sly frills and asides.

Two numbers in particular stand out even among so many exceptional renditions. Leigh Barrett and Aimee Doherty raise the roof with a Boston-inflected "Class," only for Barrett to return with Shannon Lee Jones in Act Two for the similarly set, and riotous, "The Grass is Always Greener." (It's sheer genius to see Barrett and Jones bring down the house with a single word -- "Velour" -- and the timely deployment of an iPhone.)

The one real regret one might have about the show is that it's not put on in a cabaret setting. That can't be helped, when the show takes place in the Charles Mosesian Theater. But there are times when it's possible to forget that this is the Mosesian and not Oberon: Watching the cast flash their cash-lined trench coats in "Money, Money," or taking in Shannon's poignant rendition of "Maybe This Time." You might even find yourself singing along -- especially when the irresistible "New York, New York" crowns the evening.

"The World Goes ’Round" continues through July 31 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.

Tickets cost $28 - $58. Seniors receive a $7 discount. Student rush tickets cost $20. Tickets can be obtained online at www.newrep.org or via phone at 617-923-8487.

Performance schedule: Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:30 and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 4:00 p.m. There will be a Thursday matinee at 2:00 on July 14, but no Saturday 3:30 performance on July 16. There will also be a Wednesday evening performance on July 20 at 7:30 p.m.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.