The tantalizing combination of Bebe Neuwirth and Kurt Weill doesn’t deliver the sizzle you might expect in this odd diversion, a latenight cabaret show masquerading as a mini-musical. Supported by a piano player, a pair of beefy dancers and an older, mustachioed master of ceremonies, Neuwirth works her way through more than a dozen Weill songs in the show’s hourlong running time. But the sketchy conceit provided by director Roger Rees fails to provide the evening with a strong narrative support. Even for those in the audience who haven’t come from cocktails or dinner, the 11 p.m. curtain time may mean things get a bit blurry before the last biting lyric has been spat out.
With her angular, alabaster beauty, penetrating eyes and tough-but-bruised manner, Neuwirth seems a natural for the musical terrain associated with Weill. Slinking down a staircase onto the stage of the funky Zipper Theater, which is got up to suggest a last-ditch dive by Neil Patel and lit in smoky shades by Frances Aronson, Neuwirth looks aptly like a refugee from a German Expressionist painting.
Her singing style is sharply expressive, too: The metallic edge of her vibrato is well-suited to Weill’s songs of women used and abused by heartless men. But the show’s dense musical texture — there’s virtually no dialogue and just a smidgen of dancing — is not really an ideal showcase for Neuwirth’s talents. As her unforgettable turn in the long-running revival of “Chicago” illustrated, she’s a triple threat: a knockout dancer, a forceful actress with an acidic comic style and a stylish singer.
But her gifts are most dazzling when they’re united to serve character and story. Here, her terp capabilities and acting chops are sidelined for most of the evening. She’s primarily performing as a chanteuse, and in this context it’s hard to overlook her vocal limitations, even if we can admire the intensity of her interpretations. After an hour of straight singing, one’s ear grows tired of the slightly shrill tang of Neuwirth’s voice, which doesn’t have a lot of natural bloom or varied colors.
The repertoire chosen to suit Rees’ vague concept tends to underscore this problem: There are a few too many of Weill’s moody angst-filled dirges. Although one must consult the accompanying press release to discern that the title character is a “one-time saloon singer at the end of the line” who is reliving “the highs and lows of her checkered existence,” it becomes crystal-clear early on that life hasn’t been a cabaret for this dame.
Better-known selections from the Weill songbook would include “Surabaya Johnny,” “Barbara’s Song” and “Je ne t’aime pas,” all performed persuasively here (the latter in passable French). Simply because it provides an uptempo exception to the vaguely lugubrious tone, the jazzy Weill/Ira Gershwin tune “The Saga of Jenny,” from “Lady in the Dark,” becomes a snazzy highlight.
But the audience is left in the dark too often here. Many of the selections are too lyrically obscure to stand comfortably on their own, and collectively they give little dramatic shape to the progress of the evening. “Jenny,” as she is called, flirts or tussles with the two hunky chorus boys (Greg Butler and Shawn Emamjomeh, moonlighting after perfs in “Chicago”), occasionally indulging in a snippet of a tango, crisply designed by Ann Reinking.
Ed Dixon, playing the saloon-keeper, provides some handsomely sung snippets of linking material, but mostly watches from the sidelines, looking wary and cynical.
But the evening never generates the kind of excitement you keep expecting; it may be a little too cool for hot summer nights.