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Bebe Neuwirth Finds the Story Within Each Song

Her cabaret-style concert at CSUN is an unabashed triumph, albeit unexpectedly brief.

Bebe Neuwirth had stories to sing Saturday night at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center and she sang them brilliantly, if perhaps too briefly.

She has performed her cabaret-style Stories With Piano tour with pianist Scott Cady since 2009. Any ambiguity about the meaning of the title--is she alternating music and narrative? No--is clarified after the opening number, appropriately I Love a Piano. "We play story songs for you," she explained to a full house eager to hear the 53-year-old two-time Tony Award winner.

And when Neuwirth sang and Cady played, it was sheer delight. Who needs a six-piece orchestra when Cady can fill the venue with virtuoso sound? And Neuwith was more than a singer; she was an entertainer. She added emotion, sharp phrasing and a wide variety of vocal mannerisms to her fundamentally solid voice to create fully formed characters within each song. Where appropriate, she added arm and leg movements, more a suggestion of dance than dance itself and a reminder of  Neuwirth's considerable ability as a dancer.

Included in the 14 songs she performed were familiar standards, such as Frank Loesser's (I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China and Sammy Fain's I'll Be Seeing You, the latter of which she praised as "one of the best songs ever written." Her version made it hard to argue the point.

There were samplings from Broadway (Cabaret and Another Hundred People) but nothing from Chicago, the musical with which she is most associated. You could argue that Neuwirth was entitled to give All That Jazz a rest after all those performances. I would argue, however, that her  show would have been just a bit more memorable for giving the audience a song it ached to hear.

Neuwirth showed off her soft shoe on her version of Mr. Bojangles and created a tale of whimsy and romance with Ring Those Bells that rang every bit as true as the more well-known performance of that number by Liza Minelli.

Other numbers, though perhaps less well-known, packed their own wallop. Bilbao Song (not the one that was a hit for Andy Williams) was a wonderful expression of nostalgia and a lamentation of the toll exacted by progress. Surabaya Johnny was a marvelous mix of melancholy and the anger of a broken heart. The Kurt Weil number was, as Neuwirth accurately described it, "as unflinchingly honest as any love song I've ever heard can be."

Neuwirth breezed through Simply a Waltz but then extracted every ounce of life's struggles from But the World Goes Round, once again wresting possession of a song from Minelli, with whom this one is perhaps most closely identified.

No wonder that the audience followed every number with a cascade of applause. And no wonder there were quizzical looks when, not even an hour into the show, Neuwirth announced she had presented her penultimate number.

Neuwirth drew laughs when she said she'd circumvent the clumsy dance of manners at the end of most shows and just go right to the encore. But the smiles became looks of puzzlement when it was clear she meant it. It was a classic case of too little of a good thing.

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