Live at 54 Below
Performer: Bebe Neuwirth
Distributed By: Broadway Records
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I think of Bebe Neuwirth, I think of her as an actress from shows like Cheers and Law & Order: Trial By Jury and movies like The Faculty, Summer of Sam and Malice. I forget that she has done a great deal of stage work. So I was surprised when I received a recent Broadway Records' Live at 54 Below concert album release starring Bebe Neuwirth called Stories...in NYC. Having never really heard Bebe Neuwirth sing, I wondered just how this album would turn out.
The first thing I noticed about this album is the title. The album was sent to me, complete with cover art, with a title of Stories...in NYC. That being said, I was a bit confused when, in the second track on the album, Bebe Neuwirth introduces the concert under the title of Piano Stories # 4. As Neuwirth explains, the theme for this venue is songs that tell a story, although she throws a couple of non-storytelling songs in there for good measure. Also, misleading in the title is the NYC. Sure, 54 Below is located in New York City, but the stories in the songs are not always set in NYC.
True to her description, Neuwirth and pianist Scott Cady have compiled a good list of storytelling songs like Ring them Bells, The Bilbao Song, Surabaya Johnny, On a Slow Boat to China, Susan's Dream and Mr. Bojangles. Neuwirth shows her comedic side while introducing each song, talking about her life as a performer, sniffing out cookies being served in the club as dessert and just prior to the encore. But Neuwirth's vocal talents surprised me. I am used to her deep, rich speaking voice, but that's not the voice we hear when she sings. There is a higher sort of nasal twang in Neuwirth's voice and her singing style is reminiscent of Ethel Merman and Liza Minnelli, both of whom are not exactly my favorite performers, but are equally famous in their own right. There's a tremor in Neuwirth's vocals that I find is used too much in many songs on the album.
It's this vocal style and the arrangement of some of the songs that made me cringe at times. Though I did like her interpretation of The Bilbao Song, I thought it had been done better by Patti LaPone. Note to the folks who create the Live at 54 Below albums - don't use the same song twice in the series as people will compare performances. I love Mr. Bojangles. I think it's an incredibly sad storytelling song with well-thought out lyrics and a catchy hook and I loved it best performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Neuwirth's version, while perfectly representing the sadness of the song, was just not all that good.
Yet, there were some songs in which Neuwirth's singing style perfectly fit, like the comical Ring Them Bells in which a woman sets out on a journey abroad only to discover that the love she had been searching for could be found in the apartment next door at home. Then there's the hopeful love song On a Slow Boat to China; Susan's Dream in which a wife and mother wonders what her life could have been, only to discover that she was always meant to live this one and I Love a Piano. These songs are perfect for Neuwirth's vocal style and are well arranged to suit her singing voice.
So, while I can site a few enjoyable moments on this album, Stories...in NYC: Live at 54 Below would definitely not be on my favorites list for the concert series thanks to the mix-up in titles and the vocal selections. Thus far, there have been more misses than hits with these Live at 54 Below concert series releases and I wonder if I'll ever find another album I enjoyed as much as Pattie LaPone's Far Away Places, Christiane Nolle's Gifts or Aaron Tveit's The Radio in My Head in this series again.