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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cabaret is a Life

Bebe Neuwirth
I have long pursued cabaret theater shows in the hope of finding hip performers mixing familiar songs with well-chosen new-to-me stuff, contextualized in a way that personalizes the evening both for the singer and for me. The best of them leave me feeling singled out for special treatment.

But too much of what passes for cabaret these days is a jukebox of standards, dutifully presented in full so that the audience can signal its own hipness by applauding at verse (oh-so hip) or refrain (so-so hip). One evening at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, the suffering inflicted by that phenomenon was intensified by one business-suited son-of-a-bitch who intoned along with the lyrics while giving his date the ain’t-I-impressive? eyeball. I strangled him with his own necktie to a refrain of “Miss Otis Regrets.”

When she isn’t performing on Broadway (“The Addams Family,” “A Chorus Line,” “Damn Yankees” and the Bob Fosse shows “Chicago,” “Dancin’,” “Sweet Charity,” and, of course, “Fosse”) or in movies (“Bugsy,” “Celebrity,” “Fame”) or on TV (“Law and Order,” “Frasier,” “Cheers”), Bebe Neuwirth brings her very personal world of song and story to the cabaret stage, and does it the way it’s intended to be done. She melds well-chosen music and lyrics into an experience through which she’s guiding you, and it’s not always pretty.

Why else do these songs get written? Herman Hupfield’s sentiment-laden “As Time Goes By” suggests that love can endure as age withers us, but Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” switches the point of view to a cynical New Yorker who’s seen the lovers come and, mostly, go.

They’ll be part of Neuwirth’s upcoming show, “Stories with Piano,” performed with longtime piano partner Scott Cady at Proctors in Schenectady at 8 PM Saturday, Jan. 14. That large theater doesn’t immediately suggest cabaret intimacy, but it’s worked for such singers as Susannah McCorkle and Martha Schlamme, so I’m hopeful.

There’s a New York law requiring that Kurt Weill songs be part of any intelligent cabaret show, and that’s fine with me. Neuwirth delves into two of the Brecht-lyricked numbers, “Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya Johnny.” I must confess, with apprehension against purist attack, that I’m actually more fond of Weill’s American output, for shows like “Knickerbocker Holiday” and “One Touch of Venus,” and am pleased to see “Susan’s Dream” from “Love Life” on the agenda.

Stephen Sondheim has noted that the biggest problem with Leonard Bernstein’s “One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man” (from “Wonderful Town,” recently sung on Broadway by Donna Murphy) is that it suggests we’ll be listening to the thing all night. Fortunately, the lyric rises to a comic, cynical height and quits early. Sondheim’s own “I Never Do Anything Twice,” lost in a long-ago Sherlock Holmes movie, paints a picture of love going a little less awry, provided you don’t get in the habit.

We travel from the theater’s center, with songs by Kander and Ebb and Irving Berlin, to folk-country (Jerry Jeff Walker) to the uncategorizeable (Tom Waits). Which may be where we should leave these expectations. Neuwirth has herself explored so many facets of entertainment that you long ago left aside the notion of her merely as a dancer who sings, or an actress who dances, or a singer who . . . you get the picture. It’s really when you leave the categories behind that entertainment begins. See you on Saturday.

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