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Theater Review: “First You Dream: The Music of Kander & Ebb” at the Kennedy Center

The composers are the real stars in this tuneful showcase of their biggest hits.

The cast of First You Dream. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

First You Dream: The Music of Kander & Ebb is a treat for lovers of musical theater. This is a showcase of some of the best songs from John Kander and Fred Ebb, the theater powerhouses who brought us Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as the Big Apple anthem “New York, New York.” Throw in six great singers, each with a lot of personal pizzazz, let Signature Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, mix and match them creatively, hand the baton to Signature Theatre’s award-winning musical director, Jon Kalbfleisch, add sparkly costumes and neon lights, and you have a can’t-miss evening of tuneful delight.

It worked in Signature’s intimate space in 2009. And it works at Kennedy Center, which needed a production to fill the Eisenhower when the planned production of Pal Joey fell through. The biggest change is that the 23-person orchestra, conducted by Kalbfleisch, is bigger. At times, it is too much of a good thing and the singers are hard to hear. It’s a pity because there are some real showstoppers here—Heidi Bickenstaff belting out “Ring Them Bells” and Matthew Scott, James Clow, and Alan H. Green joining forces on “Military Man.” There are torch songs aplenty and wonderful harmonies. There are also surprises when you expect a splash and get a quiet “ping” instead. I can accept a poignant “Cabaret.” But I admit I missed a rousing rendition of “New York, New York.”

The set—two sets of illuminated stairs in the midst of the 23-piece orchestra—looks very much like the illuminated steps at Signature Theatre in Arlington. It is simple, but it works. Kander and Ebb are the real stars here. And they deserve to be.

First You Dream: The Music of Kander & Ebb is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through July 1. Tickets ($65 to $125) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.

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