BWW Review: Beth Leavel Levels 54 Below Audiences With IT'S NOT ABOUT ME
During her show IT'S NOT ABOUT ME Beth Leavel shares a wealth of stories about her career, some of the funniest being stories about the times in her life when she was struggling to get work, auditioning (or not) for cast-of-thousands musicals, just trying to break into the chorus; and while the stories are side-splittingly funny, it is difficult to not think these words: HOW was Beth Leavel ever NOT a star?! A true original, Beth Leavel possesses everything required to be a star: talent, beauty, timing, individuality, and a complete lack of concern about whether or not something she is about to do will end up embarrassing her. Star Quality, that's what they call all that Beth Leavel has, and that's what she is bringing to the stage of Feinstein's/54 Below these days
Not fresh off of the closing of the much-loved Broadway musical THE PROM, but fresh enough, Ms. Leavel is bringing her unique voice to this terribly entertaining and enlightening nightclub act - not profoundly enlightening but personally so, because the woman on the stage of 54 Below is sharing herself with her audience, and then some. With her over-the-top antics, a wicked and wild sense of humor, and complete abandon, Ms. Leavel shares experiences with her audience in a continual conversation that is designed to make the evening "just like being in my living room" and, indeed, that's the end result of her act. Throughout the night Beth Leavel talks directly to people, openly sharing their conversations with an audience doubled over with laughter, asking questions of individuals and of groups, giving shout-outs to friends and family who have traveled to see her, and even giving a door prize to the audience member who has traveled the farthest. She talks about the old days, when living in Hell's Kitchen meant danger outside the apartment and in, and when she would do anything to get the part...even pretend to be a dancer. No story seems rehearsed, every word appears to be spontaneous, and yet there is no element of logorrhea to the performance, no point at which one would dare consider looking at their watch. All sit, transfixed, waiting with baited breath to hear what The Star will say next, and hoping it will be inappropriate, as the law of averages suggests it might be; and even when Beth Leavel says something inappropriate, it is entirely appropriate because it is authentic to who Beth Leavel is -- and this is just Beth Leavel talking. Wait 'til she starts singing.
Beth Leavel has done 13 Broadway shows. Many people may have missed some of them, but those aren't the songs they will hear in It's Not About Me - oh, no. There may be a song from The Drowsy Chaperone, possibly a couple of songs from The Prom, but what awaits the audience at It's Not About Me is a chance to find out what Beth Leavel was like playing some of the great roles written for Broadway actresses, including two numbers from Gypsy and a song from Hello, Dolly during which Leavel redefines and makes her own one of the most famous monologues in musical theater history. Both segments of this cabaret show offer windows into a Broadway heaven only seen in regional theater, where Leavel played the roles. There's even a little Reno Sweeny in this show, and at Wednesday's performance Ms. Leavel dragged an unsuspecting Adam Heller up on the stage to introduce him to her audience as her fiance ("You hate me so much right now, don't you?") before snuggling him for a moment and allowing him to return, blushing and blissful, back to his table. True to form, every song Beth Leavel performs becomes an epic re-telling of a classic play, reinvented for the occasion (not only by Leavel but by musical director/pianist Phil Reno) and served to the fans with unwavering respect for that which they have come to see: a complete Beth Leavel performance.
In her ongoing dialogue with her audience, Ms. Leavel opens up the floor for questions, truly welcoming her audience into her living room and her life, and one prime topic during Wednesday's Q&A brought to light a fact that may some may have missed: while Meryl Streep will be playing Beth's role in the film version of The Prom, Beth will be playing Meryl's role in the musical version of The Devil Wears Prada, and while discussing this with her audience, Beth Leavel became wistfully misty-eyed, sharing her genuine gratitude for the blessings in her life, allowing all an opportunity to see what happens when a powerhouse entertainer becomes quiet: the emotions are still at an 11, while the output drops to a 7 - still powerful, still effective, just serenely silent and filled with gravitas.
In this show, as in all her performances, as one suspects in life, Beth Leavel holds nothing back. She is an all-in kind of woman, and whatever the story she is telling, from her prosaic Nazi Story (no spoilers, it has to be heard live to be fully enjoyed) to the musical one told by mashing up two Sondheim songs with one once sung by Nancy LaMott, Beth Leavel knows no other way than to commit to the craft, to the story, to the audience, all the way down to the deepest place of her being, in order to get that story across, in all its' glorified, flawed, beautiful humanity. And get the story across, every story she has come to tell, is what she does, and that is why she is the star that she is.
To see Beth Leavel live is more than a joy, more than a pleasure, it is a privilege
Photo Credit: Stephen Mosher