BWW Review: Bebe Neuwirth Serves Up an Acting Lesson at Feinstein's/54 Below
If you want to know how to act a song, go see Bebe Neuwirth, who recently performed STORIES WITH PIANO, #1 at Feinstein's/54 Below. While the two-time Tony winner's voice isn't what it once was---now with a slower vibrato and not a great deal of range---her show is a master class in how to interpret lyrics and embody songs.
Neuwirth opened with Irving Berlin's 1915 "I Love a Piano," a song that she said has been her audition piece for 45 years. (That means she's been auditioning since she was an adolescent.)
She also performed some numbers traditionally sung by men, saying that she chose them simply because she likes them, and ultimately decided against changing the pronouns. These songs included "Pretty Women" from SWEENEY TODD, "Real Live Girl" from LITTLE ME, and "Martha" by Waits, the latter my personal favorite from the night. It's the story of a man who calls the woman he loves 40 years after their break-up and after they have married other people. Neuwirth brought me to tears on that one, as she connected deeply with the pain of both love and time lost.
She mentioned that she thinks of Tom Waits and Kurt Weill as writers who "live in the same world." This statement was followed by Weill's "The Bilbao Song," which she said is about nostalgia and integrity, and later his "Surabaya Johnny," both from HAPPY END.
Neuwirth put her own personal stamp on familiar songs like "Cabaret," "The Trolley Song," "Slow Boat to China," "Mr. Bojangles," and "Another Hundred People." In particular, she imbued "Mr. Bojangles" with the pathos the song deserves but rarely gets. She said that she asked her accompanist and musical director Scott Cady to create the most reverent, respectful, and spiritual arrangement he could, and he certainly succeeded in that, along with his other excellent arrangements throughout the evening.
On "Slow Boat to China," which she prefaced by telling the story of her family's ocean liner trip to England when she was three years old, Neuwirth started out flirty and kittenish and ended the song with sexual hunger.
Her "Another Hundred People" was interpreted with paranoia, and two songs later, she performed the obscure Sondheim piece, "I Never Do Anything Twice (The Madam's Song)" that's filled with double entendres.
Neuwirth created different characters as she moved from tune to tune and gave us a few of her famous dance moves here and there, including some Fosse choreography. The greatest pleasure of her show, however, is watching this consummate actress make every word count.
Melanie Votaw is a full-time freelance writer who has written 28 books. She covers travel, as well as theater, dance, and cabaret for Broadway World. Follow her on Twitter @melanievotaw.