Leading Ladies of Broadway: Solo Albums
Bebe Neuwirth, Christine Ebersole
"Gather around/ I've got a story to tell ..." sings Bebe Neuwirth in the comical saga of a romance-seeking European trip, "Ring Them Bells." This is the first of her "story songs" that make up her nightclub act, recorded live at 54 Below in Manhattan. Perhaps not a strange choice to find Bebe bustling her way through this and another Kander & Ebb song, "But the World Goes 'Round" (both introduced by Liza Minnelli some years ago). After all, she is closely associated with the revival of the team's Chicago in which she's played three different roles, currently holding forth as warden Matron "Mama" Morton. It's a "sharing" experience in which she more often than not gets by with her own style of communication. At times, as in "But the World ..." the choice seems to be between points made with light talk-singing or getting kind of strident and a bit screechy in the latter part. Also not new Neuwirth territory is Kurt Weill, as she did another theatre piece some time back using his catalogue. Three of his pieces pop up here, and she seems more than comfortable in their skin.
Ms. Neuwirth becomes different characters, sometimes more actress than singer, delivering attitude and mood with many lines more conversationally presented, semi-spoken, occasionally raging ("Surabaya Johnny," the later part sung in German) than purely sung. It works for her. Her involvement and investment are palpable, coloring of words and the narrated memories sometimes seeming to verge on tears, commanding us to listen. Her characters are generally brought down to earth, not grand or larger than life. On familiar numbers, her phrasing is personalized. For example, in her varied readings of the line "It was fantastic" in "Bilbao Song," her glee in memory mixes with a yearning for much-missed the old days. To a great degree, these talents compensate for a singing voice that is not the richest, wide-ranging or most resonant.
In her chatty, sometimes long-winded but likeable patter and brief liner notes, she tells us how much she loves the different kinds of tales set to music. There's some rambling and redundancy (calling a ship "beautiful" a few times, backtracking a bit, etc.). After her introductory number, "I Love a Piano," to establish that these sagas will be sung with just that instrumentplayed adeptly and attentively with its own drama by Scott Codyit's story time. The frequent returns to patter bring us back to Bebe, as characters are dropped and the next musical costume is donned.
When we get to the encore, there's true wistfulness and a heavy heart with the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal evergreen song of farewell, "I'll Be Seeing You," which becomes quite touching. The connection and affection established in "I'll Be Seeing You" also serve to makes us wish for more from Bebe Neuwirth outside of roles in the theatre.
One usually expects the classic "I'll Be Seeing You" to bring home the sentiment and tears, but Christine Ebersole and band take it at a surprisingly brisk pace that perhaps illogically tips the balance toward the bright side of keeping an absentee lover in one's thoughts. But there's another kind of sweetness in the air, even if it avoids much direct outpouring of confronted/analyzed emotion. Silky-smooth vocals and, mostly, an easygoing air are the rule on Strings Attached. This formidable theatre star and versatile actress often seems determined to take things light and breezy and jazzyor even casually aloofon her recordings, which include a couple of pairings with Billy Stritch. In the past, it has frequently been an eclectic grab-bag. The potentially deeper material that could be opportunities for explored emotion, heart–on-sleeve vulnerability don't usually "go there." It's nice on the ears, a pleasant but perplexing experience, feeling that she's laying back so smilingly much that we are only getting a small part of her vocal and dramatic skills. Like an actress "on holiday," she seemed to be having a spiffy time gliding through material, sometimes with a wink. However, I often find myself hungry for the full investment and/or more "legit" rich sound that can be captivating when she's immersed in a theatre character.
As I hear this CD, it seems she's come closest to findingand reveling inthe happy medium. There's more grace, and the looser stuff doesn't feel so tossed off, but more masterfully and meticulously spun. The zippier material is especially well chosen and Aaron Weinstein's superb front-and-center violin work and arrangements are so joyous and plucky that they're irresistible, striking just the right old-timey chord. There's more punch and whimsy. With the strong work of ace accompanimentsinventive pianist Tedd Firth and top bass player Tom Hubbardthis is a team whose members are on the same page and it's pretty easy to be swept along with their flair and fleetness. And there seems to be more attention to the prettiness of the voice as an instrument and focus in this album, which Weinstein also produced.
The opener "Shall We Dance" (the one by the Gershwins, not the The King and I piece) has zip, inviting us to throw our cares away and it works. Another Gershwin collaboration (their last), "Love Is Here to Stay" is serenely warm, albeit not heavy on heavy sentiment, but there's a confidence exuded that makes it settle into a point of view.
On a couple of rewarding tracks, the singer turns serious, some real drama is invested, and the elegance of her voice comes forth. Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is redolent with sorrow and regret, the heartbreak palpable without becoming an indulgent sob story. "After You've Gone" has it both ways, starting as a tender, take-your-time rumination of an inevitable future parting; the violin is heartbreaking in its legato loveliness. This number can also be interpreted as the anticipation of a "you'll be sorry" vengeance, but there's no taste of that at first. However, after a generous taste of honey and maturity, the tempo suddenly picks up and gets feisty and almost festive, see-sawing with another lively song: "Too Gone Too Long." A welcome surprise is a rethinking of "Something There" that jazzes it up vigorously and creatively in such a way that it tickles the ear and is miles away from its original Disney-drenched Beauty and the Beast straightforward origins.
Throughout the recording, the Weinstein wit and sense of joy, always rooted in musicality and vitality, anchors this outing and it becomes quite convincing.