From the long, lovely, lithe legs that dance themselves silly on stage to a voice that veers between haunting and hallowed, Bebe Neuwirth is worth a trip down memory lane, whether it's Kander and Ebb that flows through your mind or Kurt Weill that wells in your heart.
The terrifically toned terpsichorean treat and two-time Tony Award-winner with memorable musicals in her bulging bio ("Sweet Charity," "Chicago," "A Chorus Line") is a one-woman lineup of lyrics and song, a festival of fun and finesse.
Which puts her in good company this weekend, when Neuwirth provides the spotlight performance of the Blank Rome Festival of Arts and Culture at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J.
A Wonder Woman of words and music, she is performing with grace, with wit and, as her weekend co-star, "with Piano": "Bebe Neuwirth with Piano" is on key to catch praise and plaudits — much as she did in an earlier rendition of this accomplished cabaret act at Feinstein's in New York — this Sunday night at 7:30 at Temple Beth Sholom.
Though she once shimmied as Sheila, debuting in Broadway's "Chorus Line," this is no "Dance 10, Looks 3"; that ain't it kid, that ain't it. She is a beauty to boot, to go along with the bounty of talent that taps out Tonys onstage.
Is it any wonder that one critic called the raven-haired retro and refined-looking beauty, "dark and dangerous?" They must have seen her as a tease in the film "Tadpole," playing a cougar with claws that would have Santa scratching her off his "nice girl" list for the "naughty" file.
But then she wouldn't be on his list to begin with: Beatrice J. Neuwirth, the daughter of artist Sydney Anne and math maven Lee Paul Neuwirth, is bimah-bonded, Princeton proud of her Jewish/Jersey girl days that had her performing the city's ballet company's "Nutcracker" decades before she would be the inimitable Lillith of TV's "Cheers."
But then the actress who portrayed both venomous Velma and toxic Roxie in "Chicago" has always had killer legs. Now, they go along with the hip and happenin' performer's new hip replacement.
It helps with the wiggle room, she laughs.
The room is hers; she's the cherry on the top of the cake that is the Cherry Hill festival: "I'm very proud to be a Jersey girl."
Big girls don't cry — well, some do for Argentina — but this one has no tears over a career that has included appearances with symphonies, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, making beautiful music and dance.
When she steps into a role, she can also be happy to step out of it, refusing to be shadowed by work that works against her leggy longevity. She doesn't answer to shout-outs of Lillith, couching her complaint in a rhyme and reason that befits a jewel of a Juilliard alum. "It's a little narrow, don't you think?" of those who pigeonhole her with her sparrow-spunk of a legendary part.
Phrased another way, the "Frasier" guest star puts it personal: "Now, it's not like you'd like to have people yell out 'paper boy' everywhere you go."
Touchy? No — touché! After all, as she points out, "there are a whole lot of parts I played," including Anita in "West Side Story."
A girl like that … there is no other: She was told that aplenty as a teen and 20-something, especially while attending Juilliard and slipping on some slippers for "Peter and the Wolf," which she performed for the Princeton Ballet Company.
Following Her Pied Pipers
Now the peerless performer pirouettes on stage to a different tune — that of Kander and Ebb, as well as Weill. "Everybody responds in a particularly deep way to a particular art," she allows of why these composers are her pied pipers of playtime.
"When I hear Kurt Weill, it stirs me in a way that other great composers do not."
And, as for Kander and Ebb, the tide turns her way. "They stir me, too; it may not be such a coincidence that they were influenced by Weill and his music."
It may also not be so coincidental that Neuwirth is worth her own weight in comparisons; she has been hailed for her lyrical ways, following in the vocal work of Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and muse. "I never try to imitate anyone; I am true to myself," says Neuwirth. "You get in trouble when trying to copy someone else. But I did study Lotte, much as I studied Gwen" — Verdon, the original, heartless Roxie of former husband Bob Fosse's fantastic "Chicago" — "but I'm not going to copy Gwen."
Xerox xenophobe? No need to be; in earning her Tony for the revival of "Chicago," Neuwirth was obviously standing on her own two legs and tapping into a talent that goes way beyond the footlights.
Indeed, she recently made her directorial debut. "Well," she avers, "it was just a reading," but it is a field to which she would like to direct more of her time and attention.
"What I really enjoy is coaching," she says of a career path that provides its own pocketful of miracles, which she snapped open recently at Harvard University, serving as a visiting artist.
And, if Wonder Woman is a good description of the never-ending Neuwirth, she has nothing against cartoon characters; indeed, she may very well be moving back into the neighborhood of Broadway in 2010 when a musical version of "The Adams Family" is penciled in, with Neuwirth as the ghoul next door, the deadpan Morticia.
"It's based on the actual comics, not the TV show or the films," she says.
Another credit, another year: It's not every artist who finds people visiting Times Square to celebrate her birthday at year's end, but that does happen when your candles light up just as the Times Square ball is going down Dec. 31.
It's a mixed blessing, says the unalloyed, blessed Bebe, about to turn 50. The good news is everyone is toasting your birthday, Bebe kibitzes.
The down side? It's a Top 10 list in reverse: "They're counting down the end of your birthday at midnight."
But, then, time seems to be in her favor these razzle-dazzle days, as she puts on her party hat to celebrate yet another performance, this time "with piano."