The Songs of Kander & Ebb – NY Pops
by Matt Smith
As any true diehard classic theatre fan can resoundingly tell you, there’s simply no better musical pair than Kander and Ebb. Their compositions just exude — nay, define — classic Broadway, and anyone in doubt, or in need of a reminder, should look no further than Life is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb, the extravagant retrospective of their 50-year partnership, presented last Friday night at the legendary Carnegie Hall.
From oldies-but-goodies like “All That Jazz” and “Cabaret” to newer work such as “The Minstrel March” and “You, You, You,” the evening spanned the majority of their eclectic catalogue, and reminded us why we love them so much — and why they are revered, to quote as “one of the greatest songwriting teams in musical theatre history.”
Surely, these tunes are brilliant as is, and the evening would’ve been just as delightful if we were treated to these tunes via the orchestra alone. But that’s not to say the enjoyment of the night wasn’t increased by the top-notch performances of the two special guest artists, Tony Yazbeck and Caissie Levy (both of whom, it should be noted, were making their respective Carnegie Hall debuts).
To say they dazzled would be an understatement. Triple-threat Yazbeck (On the Town, Lincoln Center’s Crazy for You), for one, is a musical force to be reckoned with. He oozes charismatic charm as slick and sly lawyer Billy Flynn (a role to which he announced he’ll return this coming Tuesday), as he sings that character’s signature songs, “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle.” He later returns, in equally full, form with a jazz-tinted redux of “The World Goes ‘Round,” which, naturally, brought the crowd to its feet. And thank God his director chose to utilize his unmatched tapping skills, which he unabashedly exhibits through an extended dance break in the midst of the already spectacular “City Lights.”
And what to say about his partner in crime for the evening? The incredible Caissie Levy, late of Broadway’s Ghost and Les Misérables, maintains a voice wrapped in velvet, with a belt to match. From the get-go, she hits the ground running and blows us all away with her rendition of the spine-tingling “Sing Happy,” which sets the bar for the entire evening. What’s more? She’s just as comfortable tapping into her silly side, first encapsulating Chicago’s Roxie with a delightfully delicious delivery of the eponymous song (She even got both the audience and the orchestra going with a call-and-response!), and later delivering “Ring Them Bells,” which allowed her to display a wide range of impressive characters — capped off with a mind-blowing final note that would undoubtedly make Liza proud.
Even the New York Pops, in its full, 78-piece glory under the superb direction of Steven Reineke got in on the fun, providing us with the instrumental “Chicago Suite,” and a sans-singer version of Kiss of the Spider Woman’s “Gimme Love,” among other hits.
But yet, despite all the pomp and circumstance surrounding these performers and the program itself, it’s clear who the true star of the evening is, and all involved waste no time in ensuring he receives his due recognition, acknowledging his presence and continually gesturing in his direction at various points throughout the show. The man in question is, of course, none other than John Kander, the still-living half of that incomparable writing team (who, on that note, it should be stated, will celebrate his 90th birthday on March 18th). Sitting quietly atop his perch in the box seats, alongside director extraordinaire Susan Stroman (whom Yazbeck teased is his partner-in-crime for his next project), he beams with pride like a proud parent watching his babies, which, in fact, isn’t really too intensified a comparison.
And why shouldn’t he be? He and the “late, great, and gone-way-too-soon” Fred Ebb are musical geniuses, whose work forever changed the face of the American theatre. They have an unparalleled connection with the human condition… and as a result, are effortlessly able to externalize a character’s inner thoughts, while simultaneously presenting an idea to which the audience at large (as people, not as characters) can relate.
Case in point: the all-too-relevant lyrics of Yazbeck’s aforementioned “The World Goes ‘Round” and Levy’s deeply emotional delivery of the evening’s finale, “the second most famous song Kander and Ebb ever wrote” (the first presumably being “New York, New York,” offered as an encore to the evening’s program), Cabaret’s “Maybe this Time.” However, unlike lovelorn Sally, desperately yearning for the affection that keeps slipping from her grasp, it’s clear with her impeccable performance — here and throughout the evening — there’s no need for Levy to beg. She won. As did Yazbeck, Reineke, the New York Pops, and indisputably, the men of the hour, Kander and Ebb. It’s that simple. No “maybe” about it.
Life Is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb, featuring Yazbeck, Levy, and the New York Pops, was presented Friday, March 10th at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and 7th Avenue); Steven Reineke conducted. For more information regarding future performances, please visit www.carnegiehall.org or www.newyorkpops.org.
Photo Credit: Magda Katz