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Super Trouper

by B.A. Nilsson on January 18, 2012

Bebe Neuwirth: Stories With Piano
Proctors, Mainstage, Jan. 14

Bebe Neuwirth has a distinctive singing voice, and that’s the first thing many critics mention when appraising her cabaret performances. It’s lauded as an asset or damned as a distraction, but all such observations miss the most important point: Her voice actually is a manifestation of many voices, each of which reflects the character behind a particular song.

Stories With Piano is what she calls the show she brought to Proctors last weekend. As she explained, each of the numbers she chose tells some manner of tale, by or about the singer-character or ineffably woven into the fabric of the song itself. (My words, not hers. She’s far less pretentious.)

Because she’s a skilled and seasoned actor, she knows how to make a song into a three-minute musical, and how to embody the characters therein presented. Which is to say that she varies that distinctive voice. It’s always Bebe Neuwirth singing, just as it’s always Katharine Hepburn acting, but behind the distinctiveness of manner is a fully-realized character that the casual observer may mistake for the performer herself.

Who is Neuwirth? She wants us to think she’s a charming chanteuse in a Larchmont-friendly cocktail dress sipping Veuve Cliquot through a bright red straw. Even the long-out-of-date C.V. given in the Proctors program is impressive, reminding us of her work on Broadway and in film and TV. If it missed the fact that she originated the role of Morticia in the musical The Addams Family, it limned her long relationship with director-choreographer-madman-genius Bob Fosse, for whom she was a singular performer.

Which means, of course, that she dances. There’s typically not much room for that on the cabaret stage, but Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is about a dancer, and a wistful version of the song was part of Fosse’s 1978 show Dancin’, where it was titled “Recollections of an Old Dancer.”

Neuwirth was in the show, and in the 1999 Fosse, which also used the piece. Her cabaret version of the song is characterized by an unsentimental, beautiful rendering of the song while her movements, much of them restricted to a small stage space, became the dream manifestation of the dancing that this jailhouse soak used to be able to do.

She summoned a completely different character for “Another Hundred People,” a nervous number sung reflectively (and dialogue-interrupted) in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, but here given the leaky anger of an urban cynic.

It was all the more surprising in contrast to the false sense of comfort Neuwirth’s opening number conveyed, but it’s only the Casablanca association that gives “As Time Goes By” its seeming innocence. It actually conveys an ambiguous message: Whether you win or lose at love, the elements are the same.

You can fret about winning, as does the character (we’ll call her Liza) in Kander and Ebb’s “Ring Them Bells,” whose globetrotting triggers a surprisingly familiar romance, or you can worry about the opposite, as does Ruth in “One Hundred Easy Ways” from the Bernstein, Comden and Green musical Wonderful Town. Neuwirth slipped in her subtle way from character to character, from shading to shading of voice and with an essence of movement to each as well.

The three Kurt Weill songs she chose showed the protean shades of that composer. “Surabaya Johnny” exemplifies the angularity of Weill’s work with Bertolt Brecht, although Neuwirth’s performance—half of it in the original German—brought out more of the nuance than I’m accustomed to hearing. The “Bilbao Song,” also written with Brecht, adds a degree of gentler yearning, while  “Susan’s Dream,” with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, is one of Weill’s American songs, less strident than the German ones, perhaps, but nonetheless powerful.

And don’t think it was all show tunes. Pure cabaret is “Simply a Waltz,” which Neuwirth bids fair to wrest from Edith Piaf’s formidable grasp, while “Invitation to the Blues” and “Shiver Me Timbers” showed that Tom Waits is a cabaret guy at heart.

It was a short, 15-song show that ran just over an hour, and it threatened to be dwarfed by the large Proctors stage. But Neuwirth and right-on-the-money pianist Scott Cady drew us right into the proceedings, and I doubt that there was a soul in the ardent throng who didn’t fail to take a formidable emotional journey. They closed with a gentle “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Let’s hope that promise gets fulfilled.