Election Section

"Here Lies Jenny” Delivers Too Much of a Good Thing By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday June 17, 2005

In a lowdown cellar bar, a bartender, bleary-eyed and mumbling in German, slams on the lights and opens the heavy iron door for a piano player, who’s just come down the stairs and rapped. Not a word’s spoken as the pianist sits on the piano bench and looks long at the bartender, hunched over in a chair, then wielding a pushbroom, finally opening the door as two younger men pile downstairs. 

A pair of sad eyes appears at the grille in the door, opening to admit Jenny, anti-heroine of The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, played by Bebe Neuwirth (of TV’s Cheers) in a confabulated, well-staged song cycle of Kurt Weill’s extraordinary tunes, Here Lies Jenny, through June 26 at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre. 

The staging is the brainchild of Roger Rees, who also directs. 

Neuwirth plays the Jenny Diver-Pirate Jenny character from the Brecht-Weill “musical theatricals,” singing, dancing and playing her way through an amazing 21 numbers that span Weill’s career, from Weimar Republic Berlin to Broadway, with lyrics by such poets and lyricists as Bertolt Brecht, Langston Hughes, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Alan Jay Lerner and the medieval Spanish Hebrew poet Jehuda Halevi. 

With particularly strong support from Broadway stalwarts Angelo Fraboni and Dennis Stowe as John and Jim and excellent Martin Vidnovic as bartender Jeorge making a fine male chorus and corps-du-ballet, Neuwirth takes her Jenny character through “Bilbao Song,” “Je ne t’aime pas,” “The Tale of the Soldier’s Wife,” “The Saga of Jenny” (while the men sing “Don’t Be Afraid” and part of “The Army Song” to her) without a storyline or word of real dialogue. The production lets the songs speak—through the actors, the staging, the set itself, the values of the production. Even San Franciscan pianist Diane Hidy is in character, adding much both musically and as a sometimes silent presence. 

In some ways, it’s too much of a good thing. The impressive range of the material, from shows widely separated in time, theme, if not always in musical flavor and an underlying sensibility, overwhelm Neuwirth’s talents as a comedienne and her ability to focus on the often ironic, bittersweet lyrics that pose as being conversational, tossed off. She gamely runs the gamut, but her thin, nasal, palettized singing can’t do the numbers justice—and she makes the mistake of trying to act through the songs, not letting them act through her (an old complaint of Elizabeth Hardwick’s, about the New York theater of 40 years ago). Often, her most eloquent moments are the static, silent ones at the end or between the numbers.  

Naturally, taking on such an ambitious project would expose any performer to comparisons with Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, whose knowing, world-weary recitation originated many of these tunes in both German and English, with what many think their definitive rendering. But even a few weeks ago in Berkeley, mezzo Joan Morris, giving the Bloch Lectures at UC with her husband and collaborator, composer William Bolcom, at the keyboard, showed what it means to make a song one’s own by opening the final lecture (on American Cabaret style) with Brecht and Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” in the same translation (Michael Feingold’s) Neuwirth sang, but bringing out every nuance, from tenderness to rage, of this haunting, contradictory tune.  

“Surabaya Johnny” was one of Bebe Neuwirth’s finer numbers; but as “An Actress That Sings” (the title of Joan Morris’ unpublished memoir), she tends towards the “bitty.”  

Some moments—like Jenny exclaiming “You can’t just let a man walk over you!”—are striking, but finally don’t resonate with the others. In the end, there’s less a sense of a song cycle than of a series of sketches, or the sketch of a bigger musical theater project. 

Roger Rees is a talent to watch; this kind of vaudevillized chamber play, compressing so much into a small space and short time, may yet see him in top form. Bebe Neuwirth—a talented and very professional actress—unfortunately sings with just the top of her voice, lacking flavor, leaving only impressions of what might have been. 


Here Lies Jenny runs through June 26 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco. $45-$60. (415) 771-6900 or www.poststreettheatre.com.m