Fluffy, frothy 'Razzle'; '42nd Street' dazzles; 'Within' needs elbowroom; 'Nightclub Cantata' merely survives; Swados smorgasbord
''Nighclub Cantata'' is Up With People Goes to the United Nations. ''Cantata,'' composed in 1977 by the versatile Elizabeth Swados, is a necklace of 21 songs strung on the thread of celebrating the wish to ''survive by being aware and awake . . . survival by living, really living!''
With an aim like this, ''Cantata'' sounds as if it could be either grim survivor stories or something smarmily cheerful. You get a little of both. The pieces, by Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Frank O'Hara, and others, are a smorgasbord of the confrontive, philosophical, and slapstick. There is no logical progression to them, and their connection with the theme is sometimes strained.
The evening starts out looking as if it's going to be self-indulgent, esoteric avant-garde: actors whirling around onstage, intoning, ''I love trees.'' (Even when you find out it's written by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet from prison, it still comes off as, well, wimpy.) Then come bird calls - some passionate, some crooning, some in Hebrew. You wonder what the actors did to their throats to produce such sounds, but it's only mildly interesting.
Things pick up in the second act: There were three dazzlers in a row: ''The Pastrami Brothers'' (by Swados), a group of loony circus performers who utter a self-delighted ''Oopah!'' after completing each simple maneuver; ''Are You With Me'' (by Swados), a Cole Porterish jazz song about making a commitment to love, sung simply and well by Rebecca Fasanello; the stark ''Isabella,'' by Isabella Leitner, a concentration camp survivor who tells of the language the prisoners developed in order to survive. Performed by Ursula Drabik, it is the most powerful piece of the lot.
Only Miss Drabik had the serious, almost guerrilla theater commitment needed by some of the darker pieces. And with the exception of Miss Fasanello, none of the actors can really sing. In a show that has both singing and dancing, this is a serious flaw.
Swados's vision is an admirable one; there is a paucity of celebration of life in the theater. Too bad this production merely survives.