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Gregory Butler, Bebe Neuwirth, and
Shawn Emamjomeh in Here Lies Jenny
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There's something delicious about an 11 o'clock curtain time for a show in which Bebe Neuwirth, choreographed by Ann Reinking and directed by Roger Rees, sings Kurt Weill songs. That the show is called Here Lies Jenny and has the sly, alluring Neuwirth elaborating on Lotte Lenya's signature tune "Pirate Jenny" only adds to the feeling of titillation. The promise of something surreptitious, something verboten perfumes the 'round-midnight air.

So it comes as a surprise that "Pirate Jenny" isn't included in the Weill song cycle that the creative team has put together here. But Weill's other Jenny song is on the roster -- the one from Lady in the Dark, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. That's the ditty about another determined Jenny, bright as a penny, who, in the course of her life, repeatedly insisted on making up her mind and, as a result, continually landed in hot water. Slotted within a Moss Hart script that was among the first to tackle psychoanalysis on a Broadway stage, the song serves as protagonist Liza Elliot's defense for avoiding commitment.

Here Lies Jenny, an engaging entertainment of the sort that they used to put on at the New Amsterdam Roof, is hampered by not quite making up its mind. In a bar at the bottom of a flight of stairs and this side of a metal door with a small grating in it (Neil Patel is the set designer and Frances Aronson the lighting designer), bartender George (Ed Dixon) and a piano player (musical director and supervisor Leslie Stifelman) wait for the regular crowd to shuffle in. A couple of bulked-up waterfront types (Greg Butler, Shawn Emamjomeh) do. Then a seeming stranger, the eponymous Jenny (Neuwirth), arrives in a shapeless overcoat (Kaye Voyce is the costume designer) and clutching a bag apparently containing all her earthly possessions.

Timid and looking pallid at first, she's roughed up by the two mocking patrons and does some humiliated lying on the barroom floor. But resilient Jenny eventually gathers confidence. She sheds her overcoat and equally shapeless blue-grey dress to reveal black lingerie. (Wow! Who'd have guessed that her secret is Victoria's secret?!) Using a silver-plated tray the bartender holds up as a mirror, she puts on lipstick. She pulls a pair of high-heeled shoes from her kit and a slinky black dress, which -- this being Neuwirth -- was likely to appear. As the men depart and return and bartender George alternates between interest and disregard, she's sometimes bold, sometimes reticent until she leaves, mounting the stairs with what seems like a modicum of self-possession and hope.

As Jenny goes through her emotional and costume changes, she sings songs Weill wrote and for which 10 lyricists (including himself) supplied the words. The men sing out as well once or twice. On entering, Neuwirth timorously delivers "The Bilbao Song," about Bill's beer hall in Bilbao. The number, which is heavy on gleeful nostalgia mixed with regret, seems appropriate enough for someone entering a tavern for the down-at-heel. (She's intoning Michael Feingold's now-accepted translation of Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, and they're atmospheric, although Feingold might have found something more evocative for the final line of the chorus than "It was fantastic.") Shortly, with the men facing upstage behind her so she can lean against their broad backs, she renders Ogden Nash's exquisite "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" sentiments. Before Neuwirth climbs that long staircase on her way into the world again, she's gone through "Susan's Song" from Love Life with Alan Jay Lerner words, "Barbara's Song" and Surabaya Johnny (but she hasn't repeated the line that includes the words "take that pipe out of your mouth" as often as Brecht would like).

Neuwirth gets around to numerous others as well, but in singing the welcome mélange, she -- and Roger Rees, who's credited with conceiving the 70-minute act -- don't get around to establishing anything consistent about this particular Jenny, other than that she isn't bright as a penny at all. The songs Neuwirth and Rees have chosen for their somewhat uncategorizable piece cover so many moods there's no opportunity to get a handle on just who this Jenny is supposed to be. Why she's arrived and where she's going remain a mystery; whether she is changed by the experience is vague. She's just a woman who comes into a bar, is menaced by a few habitués that turn out to be body-building pussycats (is this the bar in Manhattan's Chelsea where Neuwirth will appear later this week?), sings a batch of great songs and, having changed her clothes but not her fortune, departs. (The last woman who walked into a bar in a musical -- Contact -- wore a yellow dress and made much more sense by the final fade to black.) Or is this Jenny intended to represent Everywoman and therefore a figure encompassing every known mood? If so, the impression is: cop-out.

Gregory Butler, Bebe Neuwirth, and Shawn Emamjomeh
in Here Lies Jenny
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Neuwirth, choreographer Reinking, and Rees evidently did make up their mind about one thing: the dancing. They must have determined there wouldn't be too much of it. It was Reinking, of course, in recalling Bob Fosse's routines, who introduced Neuwirth as Velma Kelly in Chicago rising from the theater's bowels in slinky movement. Neuwirth gave 'em the old razzle dazzle, and it was razzle-dazzling. The aim here seems to be the opposite. Neuwirth doesn't rise; she descends. She's not slinky and crop-coiffured; she's dinky, and her long black hair flows. (The producers acknowledge wigmaker Paul Huntley in a program note.) It's understandable that Neuwirth and Reinking would be eager to avoid been-there-done-that terping, but why go to extremes that undoubtedly leave patrons disappointed? On a few occasions Neuwirth wraps her long and stunning legs around dancers Butler and Emamjomeh, and that's something to see. The three of them also execute an intricate adagio routine perhaps intended as a metaphor for a ménage à trois. (Late-night audiences craving the hot and lascivious certainly may opt for that interpretation.)

Essentially, however, Here Lies Jenny is not a dance show -- Neuwirth does no dancing at all for the first 10 or 15 minutes. She hardly even extends a poorly shod foot. Nor have the men more than swaggered in rhythm. An odd tactic considering Neuwirth's voice, which is strong but not rich. She holds up her end of the chirping bargain, but she's not someone who would necessarily command high fees as a chanteuse. She is, though, someone audiences like to see giving her lithe frame a workout. For that kings might offer fortunes. And, needless to say, Neuwirth is a solid actress who can put over a song, particularly so many of the Weill songs where talk-singing was good enough for Lenya.

Making musical pieces from one songwriter's catalogue -- or material associated with one singer -- is becoming a trend nowadays. Movin' Out, in which Twyla Tharp tells a plangent story with Billy Joel's somewhat autobiographical output, is an example of how well it can be fabricated; The Boy From Oz, wherein Hugh Jackman rescues what's been made of Peter Allan's best, better and so-so tunes, is an example of how poorly it can be between.

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