Busy as an adjunct theater professor at Florida Atlantic University, Lynn University and Broward College during the school year, Bruce Linser has to confine his freelance directing to the summer months.
No sooner had he opened his production of Once Upon a Mattress at FAU’s Festival Rep, then he began rehearsals for The World Goes ’Round, MNM Productions’ revue of songs from the stage and screen by John Kander and Fred Ebb that opens Aug. 4 at the Rinker Playhouse in the Kravis Center.
The show, which premiered in 1991, spans the composer-lyricist team’s work from their Broadway debut, Flora, the Red Menace, to Kiss of the Spider Woman. Chances are theatergoers will be familiar with their songs from Cabaret and Chicago, but not from such shorter-lived musicals as The Act, The Rink and 70, Girls, 70. And certainly not in the unconventional arrangements created for this revue.
“There are songs in this revue that I wasn’t aware of,” says Shelley Keelor, one of the five performers, all South Florida mainstays. “I think the audience’ll go, ‘Oh, I know that song. Did they write that? What show is it from?’ ”
“The audience can come expecting to hear things that they know, but the way that we set them up are really going to be what draws people in,” notes Linser. “They’re going to be forced to engage and pay attention in ways they haven’t before.”
He readily concedes that he is no fan of most musical revues. “I don’t like it when actors are not connected to something or someone, just singing a song and staring into space,” says Linser. Fortunately, most of Kander and Ebb’s output are story songs, which the performers can deliver as acting exercises with new contexts outside of the shows for which they were originally written.
As Keelor says of her director, “He is very meticulous. He comes to it from an actor’s perspective.”
“He’s very detail-oriented. He wants us to understand a song before we sing it,” adds Cartland. “So we learn the music, get comfortable with the notes with Paul (Reekie, the musical director), then we meet with Bruce and talk character, motivation, the dramatic arc of a song.”
“I’ve always said that Kander and Ebb’s work is a double-edged sword. One is show biz. You can’t distance yourself from the show biz of Kander and Ebb,” says Linser. “But that other side is the thing that I like, the crack in the veneer, of what’s going on underneath the razzle-dazzle. That’s what I thrive on, looking for that double edge of hope and despair, living simultaneously. Because that’s what I think Kander and Ebb are so good at.”
Ask ensemble member Clay Cartland what the hallmark of a Kander and Ebb song is and he responds without hesitation, “Really hard harmonies. It’s deceptively difficult stuff.”
That is particularly so with the original vocal arrangements by David Loud, which the MNM cast will be performing. “Songs that are normally solos are now written for five people,” says Linser. “We spent three hours re-learning ‘Cabaret.’ We all knew it, but not in this arrangement. It gets jazzy half way through, and then it gets syncopated. I call it Manhattan Transferred, that sort of tight harmony jazz thing.”
The choreography will be by Kimberly Dawn Smith, an MNM favorite, whose ingenuity will be on display on the title number from The Rink, a family drama set in a roller rink. Yes, the cast will be dancing on skates.
“We put ‘Skating Required’ in the original audition ad, but we did not have skating auditions,” says Linser.
Cartland probably speaks for the entire cast when he explains “I wasn’t bothered by the skating until we realized how little room we have” on the Rinker Playhouse stage.
Hopefully, the performers on skates will not collide with each other, but colliding is a central theme of the show. “What we’ve done is connect who these people are to each other and why these songs relate, how these worlds are colliding,” says Linser. “To me, that’s one of the main metaphors of this show – worlds collide, but the world goes ’round.”
THE WORLD GOES ’ROUND, MNM Productions at Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Aug. 4–21. Tickets: $45-60. Call: 561-832-7469.