One of the youngest couples in the audience at Quality Hill Playhouse’s “You’ve Got a Friend” bolted for the exit at the conclusion of the first selection on Saturday. They may have been responding to an urgent message from a babysitter, but it’s just as likely that they immediately realized that the fusty production centered on songs written by Carole King and James Taylor was not to their tastes.
Under the masterful guidance of founder and musical director Kent Barnhart, Quality Hill Playhouse is Kansas City’s foremost cabaret. Barnhart is an impeccable interpreter of the Great American Songbook, but he’s less assured when interpreting more contemporary popular music.
The tepid arrangement of the title selection that opened the show seemed intended to appease elder patrons rather than to engage baby boomers. The version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” that followed was even more disheartening. The oddly dispassionate delivery of vocalists Barnhart, Christina Burton, Jessalyn Kincaid and Robert Erik Sobbe contained none of Dylan’s indignation.
Until he was hushed by an usher during a somnambulant reading of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a man in the audience sang along with unbridled passion. Although he lacked the vocalists’ technical assurance, the man possessed a soulful spirit that was too often was absent in “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The selections that most closely matched Barnhart’s sophisticated aesthetic worked best. Barnhart’s lead vocals and adroit piano work on a gentle interpretation of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were lovely. Burton’s exquisite reading of the Ewan MacColl ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was bested only by Kincaid’s thoughtful presentation of Janis Ian’s wrenching tale of teenage misery “At Seventeen.”
Although bassist Brian Wilson and drummer Ken Remmert added welcome buoyancy to “Fire and Rain,” the most effective Taylor selection was the sentimental “Sweet Baby James.” Largely because Burton seems born to sing the song, “I Feel the Earth Move” was the best of the King compositions.
Sobbe resembled the easy listening crooner Steve Lawrence on a reading of “Up on the Roof.” His terrific translation of the Elton John hit “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was more stylish. The performance indicated that interpreting of the repertoires of King and Taylor may not be Quality Hill Playhouse’s forte, but the work of John could provide the basis for an entirely rewarding future show.
Quality Hill Playhouse’s production of “You’ve Got a Friend” runs through July 9.
“You’ve Got a Friend” continues through July 9 at Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th St. See qualityhillplayhouse.com or call 816-421-1700.