Small’s resume is pockmarked with Broadway musical flops: Something More! (1964), Henry, Sweet Henry (1967), Frank Merriwell (1971), and Something’s Afoot (1976) amassed 156 performances between them; The Prince of Grand Street closed out of town; and she passed up a starring role in Godspell to do F. Jasmine Adams, an ill-fated musicalization of The Member of the Wedding. She managed a nonmusical Broadway hit in The Impossible Years and was immortalized as Chava in the film of Fiddler on the Roof, but professional disappointment has so dogged this talented singer and actress, you would expect unfulfilled promise to inform every minute of her stage autobiography.
However, those heartbreaks and others receive but glancing mentions, as Small and her director, Pamela Hall, have coated the hour-long evening with a layer of artifice so thick that precious few honest emotions escape. From Small’s pointed, plastic crooning of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “A Cockeyed Optimist” as she parades down the theater’s aisle at the start of the show to her anesthetically anthemic belting of “I Go On” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the end, you can’t help but feel you’re in the presence of a woman who’s never been comfortable being in the same room as herself.
Small performs “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart) as an abrasive, backdraft-smoky plaint; and her “Tea for Two” (Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar), which has been arranged by Sy Johnson, is a slinky come-on, complete with a cut-rate cabaret scatting section involving repeated references to oolong. These renditions don’t capture these songs’ playful romanticism, but instead make them seem like Small’s labored attempts to make them her own when she knows the deceased creators can’t demand them back.
She fares better with lesser-known material, generally of the more contemplative or sentimental varieties: Her “Half of April, Most of May” (Michael Feinstein and Bob Merrill) and “In My Daughter’s Eyes” (James Slater) are serene and heartfelt; “Peach Ice Cream” (from F. Jasmine Adams) sounds like a potential hit as sung in Small’s deepened, ragged-around-the-edges, but warm and accurate tones. Even “Wait ‘Till We’re 65” (Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner) underscores her inherent youthfulness without allowing her adult ambition to overstay its welcome.
Even so, she only unequivocally connects with the audience when she launches into a full-out Fiddler medley, an entertaining sequence that nonetheless feels like a desperate attempt to inject the show with energy that no one can dampen. At the performance I attended, it was no difficult trick for Small to encourage the audience to clap along with her to “To Life,” the drinking song-turned-life affirmation that could well serve as Small’s motto in a better-constructed show.
Life, however, has little to do with the show’s most bizarre set piece, the title song (by Jay Kerr), which Small performs with a one-eyed, rag-doll puppet named Cathy who has her own ingénue inspirations. Small oscillates between her own voice and the puppet’s with impressive agility, but makes no attempt at actual ventriloquism that might give the diversion the more professional sheen enjoyed by audiences over at Avenue Q.
The whole scene seems like Small’s especially awkward attempt to recapture her vanished youth, which the rest of the show is dedicated to proving she doesn’t really want back. That only further makes the entire song, like the show containing it, feel not quite ingenious.
Neva Small: Not Quite an Ingenue