She is deep down at the newly fashionable 54 Below, but Bebe Neuwirth’s performance soars high and achieves admirable artistic depth in a smashing exhibition of what makes her such a fabulous entertainer. In her “Stories with Piano” show (March 18-23, 2013), with Scott Cady as her piano accompanist, Neuwirth makes a point that she loves to sing songs that tell stories. And she does so with her entire being.
Although she points out that her opener, Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” is not a story song, she gives the story behind it. It was for a long time the number she did at auditions. The first actual song story comes with the Kander and Ebb “Ring Them Bells,” about the gal who goes abroad in search of a man and meets the guy who lives in the next-door apartment. And wow, does Neuwirth ring them bells. She rings them with her voice, and rings them with her shoulders and hips. Her whole body, vocally and physically, is an entertainment machine.
An example of her physical fluidity is on display when she sings Edith Piaf’s “Simply a Waltz,” as her arms flow in and out in delicate ripples and her hips sway. Throughout the show we see the results of Neuwirth’s experience as a dancer integrated in various numbers with agility, such as Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”
Her choice of Kurt Weill’s music results in exquisite interpretations, from the delicate “Susan’s Dream,” a Weill and Alan Jay Lerner collaboration, to the dynamic Weill-Brecht “The Bilbao Song,” in which she creates the spell of a time gone by in one of the best renditions I have heard. She also captures the sad romanticism of love and loss with the Weill-Brecht “Surabaya Johnny.”
Neuwirth is a fan of the work of Tom Waits, and she does justice to his “Invitation to the Blues” and “Shiver Me Timbers.” She provides a teasingly sexy interpretation of Frank Loesser’s “Slow Boat to China,” gives a whirlwind presentation of the Kander and Ebb “But the World Goes ‘Round,” and a lovely encore with the Sammy Fain-Irving Kahal “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Neuwirth is fond of interjecting personal comments dealing with her feelings about certain selections blended with a bit of her own show business history. There is always a danger of such a gambit becoming too talky, but Neuwirth establishes such friendly rapport with her audience that her comments are most welcome, as if her show were an intimate get-together. It is an intelligent fusion with her story-telling songs that time after time demonstrate her sublime talent and likeability. At 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. www.54Below.com. Reviewed March 21, 2013