Come to the Cabaret: Theatre Nova’s "Sing Happy" celebrates the songs of Kander and Ebb
The pandemic has been taking its toll on arts groups everywhere, but the determination to keep staging plays, singing, and dancing has not diminished.
Theatre Nova, a professional non-profit theater in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, opened its season after a year and a half of darkened lights with the Michigan premiere of The Lifespan of a Fact, a provocative play about truth in journalism. Nova regularly brings new plays with provocative ideas to its small, intimate theater on Huron Street.
But Nova is taking two weekends to challenge its supporters to help raise money for a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant would help Nova to continue its Pay What You Can ticket pricing.
Nova is inviting audiences to come to their cabaret with the musical revue Sing Happy celebrating the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb.
While the show leads off with the encouraging “Sing Happy” from Flora the Red Menace, the show’s best moments are the wistful, introspective, and sad songs. Fred Ebbs' lyrics are quiet reflections on life’s disappointments, while Kander’s music counters with a dance, a shuffle, an encouraging upswing. Of course, the duo created the blockbuster musicals Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman as well as the songs for the film New York, New York. The revue takes songs from those hits and other, less well-known shows.
Four women and three men perform before a simple set of three panels. The singers come and go throughout the 70-minute revue with no intermission. The tentative story they tell is one of guarded hope, which seems appropriate to our current situation.
Director Diane Hill keeps it simple and the singers respond with performances that grasp the conflicting emotions that are at the heart of Kander and Ebb songs.
John DeMerell and Justin Scott Bays set the tone. DeMerell brings a meditative quality to his rendition of “I Don’t Remember You,” a song about a once-close relationship that now seems lost forever. Bays brings more heat to a plaintive yearning for a lost love in “Sometimes a Day Goes By.” The two voices sing in counterpointed empathy.
Perhaps the best-known song in this mood is the comic sad “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago. Roy Sexton sings the mournful tale of a man who wonders how invisible he seems to be. Kander’s music is a shuffle and Sexton glides across the stage making like a sad, dancing clown.
Kristin Clark brings that wistful quality to “Colored Lights,” another song about what might have been.
K Edmonds brings her big voice and expressive face to a rollicking showstopper from Chicago, “When You’re Good to Mama,” a warning to inmates about how things work on the inside. The revue visits the prison again when Clark, Elizabeth Jaffe, Edmonds, DeMerell, and Bays do the “Cell Block Tango,” a celebration of “justifiable” homicide.
Elizabeth Jaffe has fun with a sassy celebration of a daytime lover in “Arthur in the Afternoon.”
Clark joins her real-life mother, Diane Hill, for a lesson in family roots, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far From the Tree.”
Other highlights are Bays' richly complex rendering of “The World Goes ‘Round” and Edmonds' take on “The Money Tree.”
The musical arrangements and musical accompaniment are provided by R MacKenzie.
And money is the point of this production. Theatre Nova is alive and it wants to stay alive and offer a chance for everyone to come and see fresh, new, exciting plays at a reasonable price.
In the music and words of Kander and Ebb, “what’s good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play, life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Theatre Nova’s production of "Sing Happy" continues at 8 pm from Nov. 4-6 and at 2 pm on Oct. 30 and Nov. 7, at 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets, visit theatrenova.org or call 734-635-8450.