Anyone remember the Off-the-Circle Theater Company and those cozy little theatrical cabarets Freddie Lee used to stage at d.c. space and any hotel lounge that would let him set up a music stand? No? Well, it was a while ago.

A perpetual optimist, Lee (and his patrons, Bob and Evelyn Woolston) spent the early ’80s recruiting college kids with decent voices, pinioning them in spotlights, polishing their gestures until they either had stage presence or could fake it, and setting them to celebrating the hell out of Cole Porter. Or Rodgers & Hart. Or Harold Arlen. Or the Gershwins.

There wasn’t much money for advertising, so success was up to the theater gods, who smiled occasionally…but never broadly. Still, when audiences were sparse, the cast treated the evening as an extra dress rehearsal, worked on punching up their “and then he wrote” intros, and hoped against hope that patrons would materialize later.

Sometimes they did. Never enough of them to provide much more than pocket change for the performers, but enough that Lee could keep putting together new revues every few months. After he ran through his roster of Broadway composers, he started celebrating fabled singers: Bessie Smith, Ethel Merman, Libby Holman. One time, in a vehicle called American Pie, he even tried theatricalizing Don McLean…who survived, but just barely.

Off-the-Circle patrons heard such local divas-in-training as Debra Tidwell (a Broadway-style belter who went on to star in Studio Theater’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill), elegant redheaded songbird Pam Bierly, brassy Dori Legg, and smoky torch-singer Bev Cosham (currently in Olney’s The Fifth Season). Also sinuous Gregory Ford, whose charcoal-inflected vocals and snappy way with a cane lent an air of old U Street to the proceedings. Musical director Rob Bowman accompanied them all on piano, sometimes alone, sometimes as part of a small pit band, providing glissandos and power chords, back before he was a Broadway orchestrator and hotshot conductor for Chita Rivera’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.

When Lee finally despaired of developing a steady audience for his anecdotal composer-fests, Bowman tried a different tack, showcasing new talent at downtown’s tiny Henley Park Hotel and later at the 12th Street Bread Oven (remember the Bread Oven?) in wider-ranging musical comedy revues. Among his stars: warbling comedienne Robin Baxter, who went on to create her own campy Chainsaw musicales at Woolly Mammoth, and sunshine-fresh Carole Graham Lehan, who has now settled into choreographing but was then doing the best damn Dinah Shore impersonation on the planet.

Despite repeated mentions in the Washington Post’s Weekend section, and lots of plugging by local TV critics (remember local TV critics?), the Bread Oven Cabarets were among the city’s best-kept theatrical secrets. Bowman’s headlamp smile, as he presided nightly from a Plexiglas grand piano facing Pennsylvania Avenue, should have been enough to keep that venue lit up for years. Alas, it wasn’t.

All of which is a roundabout way of noting that theatrical cabaret has never really clicked in this city. It’s also a way to avoid talking about Puttin’ on the Ritz: The Irving Berlin Songbook, the Kennedy Center’s well-meaning but utterly charmless first stab at developing an audience for the form in its spiffy new K.C. Cabaret.

Give the Center credit for investing time, cash, and imagination in the setting. The Eisenhower stage has been transformed into a remarkably intimate, 500-seat nightclub without sacrificing much in the way of backstage ambience. Ushers direct patrons past a flashing marquee in the middle of the auditorium to staircases at each side of the proscenium arch. Arriving on stage, they find 500 plush chairs arranged around tables, as well as a backstage bar that serves snacks and alcohol. Whirling mirror balls sprinkle the space with theatrical glitz, while drawing attention upward to rows upon rows of stagelights and a tangle of scenery cables.

Then two pianists mount a makeshift stage that faces in from the softly glowing auditorium, the lights dim, the balls stop turning, and the glitz turns—dispiritingly—to Ritz. Staged by Randy Skinner as a medley-thon of Irving Berlin standards, this first in a series of summer songbooks is mostly a brisk run-through of Berlin’s first verses. It offers not a word of context for the 50-some-odd ditties selected from the thousand-or-so the composer penned in eight decades of songwriting. Nor does it make much of a case for any of the material in musical-comedy terms. If you don’t know that Act I’s closing medley is from Annie Get Your Gun going in, you’ll still be clueless on the way home. Nor will you be aware, say, that “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz” graced Mr. President, the last of Berlin’s 17 Broadway musicals, or that the composer donated all royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts. In fact, the show doesn’t seem to have any strategy at all for presenting numbers other than following fast songs with slow ones.

Broadway veteran Carol Lawrence heads the five-member cast, gamely tapping out a military tattoo to “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and singing about an octave lower than she did as Maria in West Side Story 39 years ago. A seasoned pro, she’s giving a polished, Vegas-y performance that feels about as lacquered as her helmetlike hairdo. Of the backup singers, only full-voiced Patti Butler makes much of an impression. The others are sabotaged by horrendous—not to mention unnecessary—amplification that makes them sound like they’re singing through wax-paper tubes. A sound technician said the crew was still working out the kinks last weekend, so perhaps that problem is now history.

Not that making Puttin’ on the Ritz sound more natural would solve much. Grant the KenCen its good intentions, but if the point of trotting out such standards as “Easter Parade,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and the title number is to remind audiences of Berlin’s contribution to American popular song, this show—which seems designed for an imminent tour of senior citizen centers—isn’t cutting it. The next three K.C. Cabaret attractions—tributes to Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, and Jule Styne—can’t help being an improvement.CP