Neuwirths certainly got legs
A chilly Kurt Weill revue at the Zipper nonetheless offers pleasures
By CHRIS SCHMIDT
Who is Jenny, the title character of Here Lies Jenny, the high-concept Kurt Weill revue at the Zipper Theater starring Bebe Neuwirth?
Is she Pirate Jenny, the trod-upon chambermaid from Weills Three Penny Opera, who, long abused by her betters, famously bites back? Perhaps she is the campy character from Weills Saga of Jenny (with lyrics by Ira Gershwin) who convinced herself that at 22 that getting herself a husband was the thing to do. She got herself all dolled up in satin and furs. She got herself a husbandbut he wasnt hers.
In a show with no dialogue or banter, its hard to get a handle on Jenny, though the skeleton of a story suggests itself. Stumbling into a decrepit saloon with a desperate look on her face, Jenny is a woman on the run, a bag of mementoes she clutches to her chest her only consolation. Two thugswho happen also to be a bit light on their feettease and taunt her.
The woman collapses to the floor, all but broken, when suddenly the harsh lights fade and a warm spotlight appears. Jenny walks into it, stepping out of her plain sack dress and into a black satin negligee. Grabbing an old-school 1940s microphone by the neck, she magically blossoms into the chanteuse we were all hoping she was. What emerges, in a night that casts a semi-jaundiced and sentimental eye on love, is the picture of a down-and-out Everywoman clinging to whatever shreds of glamour she can still muster.
If the identity of Jenny ultimately remains opaque, one imagines thats exactly what was intended by this revues creators, who, in addition to Neuwirth, include choreographer Ann Reinking and director Roger Rees. Brecht was of course Weills most famous collaborator, and there is more than a dash of an alienation effect at play. Neuwirth sings some of the evenings first songs from behind the grilled window of a stage door; much of the medley that follows she sings with her back to the audience. Theatergoers wanting to be seduced into an evening of decadent but ultimately heartwarming cabaret will be disappointed.
Im not one of those people, but still I found Here Lies Jenny at times more frustrating than rewarding. Kurt Weill, with hisand his collaboratorshard-eyed views of sex and romance, has all the makings for a perfect nights entertainment, especially for a show starting in a down-in-the-mouth part of town at 11 p.m.
Meanwhile, Neuwirth, with her stylized, ruefully cool demeanor, is on paper well-suited to the terrain. Still best known as the uber-intellectual psychiatrist from the TV shows Cheers and Frasier, she is an accomplished musical comedy star, especially in works by Bob Fosse, which have garnered her two Tonys (for Sweet Charity and Chicago). World-weary, sharp, vulnerable without being softa Weill heroine is one tough cookie, and so is Bebe.
Yet for all her abundant stage talents, Neuwirth doesnt possess a luminous singing voice, essential for this stripped-back staging (just piano and voice). Of course, neither did Lotte Lenya, Weills wife and chief interpreter, who, after Weills death, was largely responsible for reviving interest in the composer. Lenya inevitably overshadows any subsequent Weill performanceand its for this reason, perhaps, that the creators omitted Pirate Jenny, the most famous Weill song, despite its offering the most obvious clue to her character.
But where Lenyas shredded pipes were plangent testimony to a life full of hard knocks, Neuwirths rasp seems more the effect of too many performances (or maybe too much PilatesNeuwirths legs are fantastic). As a singer, Neuwirth is never less than good, but shes only wonderful when shes dancing Reinkings minimal but inventive choreography. Only then does she lose the self-consciousness that plagues her performance.
Then there is the issue of Rees staging. Weill may be the coolest of musical theater composers, but he is never pretentious. Here Lies Jenny unfortunately toes that line, especially in the first third of the show. Clutching her collar and sending her saucer eyes ceilingward, Neuwirth seems to be channeling Falconettis Joan of Arc rather than Brechts Jenny. The effect is not unlike that of filmmaker Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Dracula), whose ironic take on silent era theatrics has a campy appeal. What Here Lies Jenny lacks is the archness that makes Maddins work so charming. The melodrama in Here Lies Jenny is hollow, as it is in Maddins work, but Rees and company seem to want us to take it straight. But without a story, theres little emotional ballast to pull us in.
Still, there are a number of musical delights, from a somewhat revisionist, and politically relevant, Ballad of the Soldiers Wife to the lesser-known gems including Im a Stranger Here, Too and Susans Dream. Gregory Butler and Shawn Emamjomeh are fine in their roles as the tough-guy Johnnies, and Ed Dixon is absolutely wonderful as the genial bar proprietor, sometime husband and silent emcee. His baritone, which soars beautifully into tenor range, is richly sonorous, his characterizations casual and relaxeda nice counterpoint to Neuwirths steely energy.
Faults aside, its hard not to recommend a show devoted to Kurt Weill. For all its off-putting chilliness, Here Lies Jenny offers a unique and polished evening at the theater. If you have the means, check it out. But those seeking a more echt Weimar experience should make a point to catch Ute Lemper at Joes Pub the next time shes in town; her show displays some of the corniness of the traditional cabaret form, but shes still the bees knees among contemporary Weill interpreters. And do buy a copy of Three Penny Operaeither in English or Germanwith Lenya in it. The life she gave Jenny makes a show like this one possible.