In a mirror image of what you’d expect from a girl sculpted by Bob Fosse, when Bebe Neuwirth hit the stage at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, the crowd seemed to be daring her to show them some jazz. Dressed in an almost conservative outfit and looking out over tables of Upper East Side men and women—many of whom could have been plucked out of the Real Housewives of Anywhere—the singer/actor/dancer/belter/Tony and Grammy winner seemed, well, vulnerable.
An hour and 18 songs later the woman who was Lilith and Velma and Chicago and Sweet Charity still seemed like an outsider, albeit the most professional outsider in show business. There’s a reason New York theater was created, and it’s for people like Neuwirth; performers who probably would starve rather than give up their dream.
Neuwirth’s “Stories with Piano #3” was as technically flawless as the performer’s body; as specific as her white, white skin. There were no cheat sheets for the lyrics, no use for endless patter (I now know that Neuwirth is 52, married, the recipient of a new hip, and the rest is probably none of my business), no fancy tricks except a piano player (Scott Cady), and no room for error. She’s just recorded a new album, Porcelain, and the material chosen is complex in both lyrics and music—this is the stuff of Tom Waits and Bertolt Brecht and Stephen Sondheim.
Neuwirth hit the stage with all that and the evening still seemed half-complete. Part of it may be the venue itself—you get the feeling Neuwirth would be most comfortable in a seedy Theater Row bar, slithering across the piano, taking requests, and daring men and women to fall in love with her. And if she doesn’t like to talk about herself or her career, it might be because she feels it’s inappropriate for the performer to act like a star at a venue where seats can cost almost a hundred bucks. Guess what, Bebe? You are and we don’t.
Neuwirth was best when she chose show-business anthems. Like her predecessors Chita Rivera and, to an extent, Liza Minnelli, her strength is in the big picture; not the details. Two Kander and Ebb songs made famous by Minnelli worked wonders: “Ring Them Bells” was as fresh as if the protagonist had just gotten off the phone with TWA and borrowed “a thou” to travel across the globe, and “But the World Goes ’Round” seemed even more distant and bittersweet than the one we’re used to hearing. “Cabaret,” on the other hand, is an invitation to disaster unless you’re a Master with an M, and, in this show, felt like a cheap substitute for the real thing.
Also terrific was Jeffrey Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” especially when Neuwirth’s balletic arms seemed to suck up as much breath as her voice. Songs like Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” and Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” were right in Neuwirth’s comfort zone, and offered us a rare look at the performer’s softer side.
The slight absence in the room wasn’t just the entire table that got up before Neuwirth’s last song—her spontaneous response was a breath of unrehearsed hilarity. While intimate shows in cabaret spaces allow performers to stretch their musical legs without the constraints of mass ticket-sale musts, people do come to hear the music play. A Bebe Neuwirth without her own stories and a Bebe Neuwirth without “All That Jazz” is a fine night of culture. But given the Broadway veteran’s unfinished, and still slightly unfamiliar resume, it’s not a showstopper.
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