When Kander & Ebb’s musical “The Act,” with a book by George Furth, was staged on Broadway in 1977, it was a Liza Minnelli showcase. She played a fading movie actress trying to make a comeback in Las Vegas and singing the great variety of songs. In its new slimmed incarnation, staged at 54 Below (April 3 and 4, 2014), it takes a battery of superb singers to show how much range the composers had. They could provide songs that ooze sex, express romantic longings, offer sheer fun or descend into chilling darkness. The opportunity has been ripe for fresh exploration.
Cady Huffman turned on the sex, gyrating and coming on strong with “Arthur in the Afternoon,” a boast by a woman happy to have afternoon sexual escapades with Arthur. I’ve heard the number done in various tones, but Huffman went to town with unabashed, belting delight and sexual heat.
Carole J. Bufford, peeling off a staid outfit to reveal a colorful clinging dress, did a smashing rendition of “City Lights,” contrasting the boredom of a life in the sticks with the lure and joy of the city. She strolled around the room to impart the exhilarating message up close with audience members. Bufford can be counted on to give a top notch performance every time out, and this was a glistening illustration combining her excellent voice with her crystal-clear way with lyrics.
Randy Graff escorted us to the dark side in a poignant interpretation of “Please, Sir,” which contrasted being brought up to be the perfect lady, politely and otherwise, but facing the reality of her life from child abuse to selling herself. Graff hit all of the stops along the way with utmost sensitivity, and at one point, chilling facial expressions underscored the horror of what the woman’s life had become. It was a brilliantly sung and acted interpretation.
Other members of the powerhouse cast included Karen Mason, Julia Murney and Rachelle Rak. Mason put much meaning into “It’s the Strangest Thing” and into the encore number “My Own Space.” She has a great voice and is extremely skillful at interpretation. Murney shook up the room with “The Money Tree,” and Rak brought a romantic relationship to heights with “There When I Need Him.”
Anna Chlumsky’s “Bobo”s” revealed the composers’ ability to zero in on a lively, local joint that offered good times. The evening was also enlivened by group singing, starting with Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Elizabeth Ann Berg, Jen Malenke and Will Porter singing “Shine It On,” later reprised. Mamie Parris, Berg, Malenke and Porter sang “Turning.” Stacie Bono, Berg, and Malenke teamed on “Hot Enough for You?”
There were other numbers, as well, all adding up to a scintillating evening of song that did the double duty of showing off the work of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb and the talent of the performers who knew how to put over their wide range of numbers. Musical direction was by Daniela Candillari, at the piano, with Jeff Roberts on drums and Adam Neely on bass. The show was directed and conceived by Will Nunziata, with choreography by Jessica Redish. At 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 646-476-3551. Reviewed April 4, 2014.