Murder in the Belt Way: Julia Murney kills a version of ?Cell Block Tango.?

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Have any Broadway songwriters ever captured anthemic disappointment with more showbiz flair than John Kander and Fred Ebb? Their desperate chanteuse choking on regret as she belts that life is a cabaret; their world-weary photographer protesting “I Don’t Remember You” to the girl he loved and left in The Happy Time; their glittering diva realizing that she’ll only find happiness “when the snow turns green” in The Act. Not to mention those triumphantly dyspeptic dames in Chicago and The Rink, and the cockily miserable, life-of-the-party heroes of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Zorba, all singing variations on Red-menace Flora’s exuberant “All I Need (Is One Good Break).” Sure, there are other emotional colors to the Kander & Ebb songbook, but the songwriters are at their razzle-dazzlest when finding ways to send the ache of envy soaring at the rafters. And the chief strength of Eric Schaeffer’s celebratory revue, First You Dream—apart, that is, from the six Broadway-caliber singers (five of whom have actually starred on Broadway) and the 19-piece orchestra—is the variation he finds in their downbeat-on-the-downbeat exultations. Julia Murney’s coked-to-the-gills murderess turning a familiar anecdote unexpectedly hilarious in “Cell-Block Tango;” Eleasha Gamble belting of the overrated charms of fresh air (“I won’t breathe nothin’ I can’t see”); diminutive dynamo Matthew Scott musing with a wistful masculine reserve about the lure of the cabaret. Norm Lewis brings a smoky warmth to ballads of remembered joy, while James Clow contributes a sturdy baritone and Heidi Blickenstaff corners the sparkly regret concession in “Maybe This Time.” If some of those songs sound unfamiliar, credit Schaeffer’s enthusiasm for unearthing buried Kander & Ebb treasures: He’s included moments from all 17 musicals and several of the films on which they’ve collaborated and gone out of his way to showcase 70, Girls, 70 as often as the more familiar Chicago. Hell, First You Dream takes its title from a ballad in Steel Pier, which didn’t quite manage a run of two months on Broadway. And while Schaeffer can’t help at least referencing K&E’s biggest hits, he finds ways to rework, pare, or otherwise freshen most of them. First You Dream is doing enough right, in fact, that I’m almost reluctant to note that all its musical firepower notwithstanding, a show built insistently on regret and disappointment is likely to leave its audience feeling those very things, especially when it’s so overstuffed that it lasts the better part of two-and-a-half hours and doesn’t click into gear until near the end of a long first act. Still, with so much unfamiliar material, and so little likelihood of revivals of Curtains or Woman of the Year any time soon, I suspect most patrons won’t be inclined to look a gift revue in the mouth.