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Bebe Neuwirth

Bebe Neuwirth

Not Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane

by James Leonard

posted 7/1/2005

She's so much more. Bebe can dance. She made her debut in A Chorus Line as a dancer, appeared in two Bob Fosse dance reviews, and won her first Tony in his revival of Sweet Charity. Bebe can sing. She won her second and third Tony for the 1996 revival of Chicago, singing the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Bebe can act. Beyond playing a more brittle Katharine Hepburn to Kelsey Grammer's more bumbling Spencer Tracy in Cheers — a role that won her two Emmys — she has been seen most recently in the cross-generational screwball comedy Tadpole, playing a more relaxed Anne Bancroft to Aaron Stanford's more jejune Dustin Hoffman. Best of all, Bebe has charisma. Whether sitting at the corner of the bar in Cheers or swallowing a banana in Woody Allen's Celebrity, her charisma compels your attention.

The thing is, Bebe's charisma is not what everybody would call suitable for the whole family. Born on New Year's Eve to a mathematician and an artist in Newark, New Jersey, who named her Beatrice after the heroine of Dante's Paradiso, Bebe started dancing young, kept at it through Princeton High School, and carried it on into Juilliard. Working with Bob Fosse changed her dancing. He showed her how to move: how to curve her arms, bend her legs, arch her torso, and, particularly, how to thrust her pelvis in a manner at once sexual, violent, and dangerous. Bebe's charisma comes out in everything she does: singing "Big Spender" in Sweet Charity or "I Can't Do It Alone" in Chicago, seducing fifteen-year-olds in Tadpole, or twisting the knife in Frasier, her charisma is palpable.

What is Bebe's charisma? It's not her body, although she's got all the parts in all the right places and they're all in fine working order. It's not her face, although her eyes are enchanting and her lips are inviting. It's not her voice, although her tone is warm

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and low and full like Cognac. It's Bebe's attitude toward sex. She's all for it. Like Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, all Bebe's characters like sex. Charity the prostitute may have a heart of gold, but she still likes her work. Velma may want the fame that sex and violence bring, but she also likes the sex. Diane in Tadpole may be flirting with statutory rape, but she's enjoying herself thoroughly.

In her appearance at Hill Auditorium on Tuesday, July 5, Bebe's charisma will test the newly installed air-conditioning system. She'll be performing tunes from Chicago, along with songs by the Godfather of Decadence, Kurt Weill. As every woman singer since Lotte Lenya knows, when it comes to setting hot, wet, nasty sex to music, the cantor's son from Berlin knew all the ins and outs. From the sweaty songs of The Threepenny Opera through the steaming songs of Happy End to the sweltering songs of One Touch of Venus, Weill had his finger on the pulse of sex. The mere thought of Bebe singing "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" in a little black dress is enough to blow a fuse.    (end of article)

[Originally published in July, 2005.]

 

 
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