The fleet, funny noir opening to the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Bootlegger revue The World Goes 'Round is actually quite misleading, as it bears almost no resemblance to the show that follows. Yet rarely have I been so happy to be misled, because the show that follows is a real beauty - thoughtful and nuanced and serious, and oftentimes boasting a gravity and sadness that, coming from the Circa '21 stage, feels legitimately shocking.
By no means is this musical celebration of tunes composed by legendary collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb relentlessly dour; no revue that finds Marc Ciemiewicz crooning a joyous love letter to baked-goods namesake Sara Lee, or Brad Hauskins offering woebegone hilarity as Chicago's "Mr. Cellophane," can be accused of not wanting to provide a good time. But for a goodly portion of its length, the songs here lean more toward the melancholic and haunting, and one of the great thrills of The World Goes 'Round lies in how effortlessly captivating the show's Bootleggers - and castmate Bret Churchill, currently Circa '21's resident stage manager - are even when performing low-key material. By necessity, the wait staff is typically forced to keep the mood "Up!" during the theatre's nightly pre-show entertainments. Director/choreographer Jim Hesselman's offering, however, proves that for its cast, "down" can be just as enticing a color.
Not that you'd guess this from the show's introductory minutes, which find Ciemiewicz outfitted as a 1940s gumshoe, and speaking with such riotously precise Raymond Chandler cadences that you can practically see the nonexistent cigarette dangling from his mouth. He promises to tell the sordid tale of Bootlegger Jan Schmall, who enters, looking spectacular, in a fiery red dress. Longing for escape from "the glamorous world of hot tea and salad preparation," Schmall decides to take refuge in her cottage in the woods, a getaway spot quickly infiltrated by her co-workers (and a wonderfully clever way to account for designer Susan G. Holgersson's sprawling cottage set, also being employed for Circa '21's current The Dixie Swim Club). Yet while this tongue-in-cheek narrative - one that Ciemiewicz accurately describes as "superfluous" - suggests another enjoyably cheeky evening with the theatre's gifted servers, what results is something even more welcome: Circa '21's most gloriously mature musical since 2003's Show Boat, with its gorgeous solos and harmonies enabling the show to emerge as one of the warmest, richest revues in the venue's past 20 years.
Adding to the pleasure of hearing Kander & Ebb's songs sung so well, at least for me, was my unfamiliarity with so many of them, which provided The World Goes 'Round with an extra layer of surprise. Unless you're hoping for more signature numbers than are actually staged, fans of the duo's most well-known works won't leave disappointed; Jennifer Diab and Laura Hammes [née Miller] lead a knockout, sultry rendition of Chicago's "All That Jazz," the female ensemble knocks Funny Lady's soulful "Isn't This Better?" out of the park, and the cast offers up a delightfully insinuating take on "The Money Song" from Cabaret. (Watch Churchill in this segment, with his devilish grin and snaky physicality, and tell me he wouldn't make a perfect Master of Ceremonies for that musical one day.) Yet just as marvelous are the numerous lilting ballads and sprightly comic numbers from largely unknown endeavors such as Kander & Ebb's The Act, The Rink, and Zorba - numbers performed so tenderly and evocatively here that if you're a musical-theatre fan, their immediate procurement through CDs or iTunes seems utterly essential.
In truth, The World Goes 'Round makes owning the entire Kander & Ebb catalog seem essential, particularly if you could somehow get Circa '21's cast and the fiercely accomplished on-stage music director/pianist Ron May to record it. Andrea Moore and Sara Nicks contribute some of the strongest, finest vocals I've yet heard from them in their poignant "Maybe This Time" solos, and I adored Rodney Swain's touching, heartfelt take on the title tune from The Happy Time just as much as I adored the repartee that preceded it, with Swain offering lovely acknowledgment of his real-life fiancée and son. (There are terrifically honest, funny references to the Bootleggers' real lives peppered throughout the show, which was originally conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman, and David Thompson, and opened off-Broadway in 1991.) Hauksins and Churchill have an alternatingly heartbreaking and hopeful duet on their "I Don't Remember You"/"Sometimes a Day Goes by" mash-up, while Hammes exudes a confident, womanly radiance on "A Quiet Thing" from Flora, the Red Menace. (She's also a superb, mostly silent comic, wholly embracing her inner goofball, in Nicks' endearing "Ring Them Bells" number.) And while it might seem heretical to admit it, the production's most show-stopping segment - at least on Tuesday - was actually a Kander & Ebb number that's been drastically rewritten, with Diab and Schmall delivering a hysterical, Bootlegger-specific rendition of Woman of the Year's "The Grass Is Always Greener," complete with sly, cackle-worthy references to the women's Circa '21 tenures, RIBCO, Steve's Old Time Tap, and Diab's marital history. (That woman's husband and sons must be excellent sports.)
With designer Churchill providing expressive lighting effects and the performers collectively sporting a visually resplendent wardrobe of black, white, and red (with no costume designer listed in the program ... was it a team effort?), Hesselman almost couldn't help but make his cast look great. Witness the show's deliberate yet never tedious pacing, though, and the imaginative "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" choreography, and the spicy staging of Kiss of the Spider Woman's title song - with Swain's lothario clenching a rose in his teeth and quickly removing it with a pained "Ow" - and you'll see the precise effect of a talented, imaginative director on already-outstanding material and participants. For my tastes, The World Goes 'Round only made one tactical error at the very end, when the audience was asked to sing along to "New York, New York" - a suggestion that, from what I could tell, was politely refused by all. After such a sensational experience, why would we ever want to ruin it, in the final minutes, with the sounds of our own voices?
[Full disclosure: I was a Bootlegger myself from 1994 to 2005, worked alongside five members of The World Goes 'Round's ensemble, and consider all nine of them friends. I urge those who presume this review to be unfairly biased to see the production and then we'll talk.]
The World Goes 'Round will be performed at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) on August 23 and 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.