By JOHN DeMERS
Cabaret, especially as performed by, at and as the brand-new Music Box Theatre, is the Great American Musical for the ADD Generation.
Instead of costumes to change and sets to shove around, instead of all those pesky writers trying to tell a meaningful, believable story, you have song after song after song – pasted together, as witnessed at a special preview last night, with jokes that actually are funny. And since the five performers who constitute the first iteration of Music Box aren’t playing characters, they can happily play themselves. Or at least, since they are performers, those parts of themselves they want us to see.
A dream of former Masquerade Theatre standouts Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough, who also happen to be newlyweds, this ambitious song-and-comedy act takes the place while filling the space of the former Radio Music Theatre. The idea is to put on a loose-knit but high-energy show – a songfest, at its best – around some sort of theme. The debut production called “Opening the Box” is essentially putting on a show about the favorite theme of all those who do: that is to say, putting on a show. The spirits of young Judy and Mickey must be smiling somewhere nearby.
With Masquerade artistic director Phillip Duggins in the audience, along with company leaders like Luther Chakurian and Kristina Sullivan, Dahl, Scarborough and Co. led a merry, musical chase all evening long. Only a few efforts at banter on opening night fell flat. From the beginning, anything involving singing, harmonizing or the show’s simple choreography was spot-on. The cast was polished in its interactions with the four-piece band, which sometimes managed to sound like at least twice that many.
Dahl, of course, is one of Houston’s true stars, one of the most talented and charismatic performers the city has ever seen, as anyone who caught her in Masquerade’s Annie Get Your Gun, Evita, Gypsy or Sweeney Todd will attest. Yet two other veterans of that company, her husband and Luke Wrobel, match her stride for stride in this production. It might be Scarborough wringing every laugh (in a Robin Williams-crazed late-night Time-Life infomercial) as Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill performing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” or as The King and I’s Siamese monarch puzzling through Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” And it definitely might be Wrobel channeling Ole Blue Eyes in an atmospheric rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” or bringing a whole new, yearningly masculine language to “Over the Rainbow.”
In “Opening the Box,“ these longtime players get solid support from two members of the younger generation. Colton Berry makes the most of his love of Lady Gaga and his experience coming close on American Idol (he insists he can’t say the show’s name for fear of a lawsuit), while Cay Taylor provides considerable humor in her bits as Martha Stewart. Still, just when you think she’s all about the joke (as she is in that same Time-Life bit, as Maria Von Trapp in nun’s habit opera-tizing “Sweet Home Alabama”), Taylor pulls out a syrupy, husky torch-song seductiveness that wanders evocatively between country and blues.
For all the pleasures of this lighthearted cabaret fare, fans of such gifted performers will surely miss them in fully developed roles. But you didn’t notice any of that last night when, with barely the blink of an eye, Dahl launched into the show-stopping “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. And since her self-inspired character was filled with doubt and fear about launching a new theater company, the song – at once so specific to a truly bizarre story – became the perfect anthem for Music Box Theatre’s impressive debut.