The experience itself, opening May 27 at Off-Broadway's Zipper Theatre after previews from May 7, is inscrutable and sensual and challenging: A makeup-free, drably costumed woman (Neuwirth) enters a vaguely European bar where two muscle-bound men (Greg Butler and Shawn Emamjomeh, of Chicago) are boozing, a lady pianist (Leslie Stifelman, in pants) tickles the ivories and a barkeep (Ed Dixon) is both paternal and menacing.
Tiny tensions and conflicts and events — including the shedding of Neuwirth's workaday clothes — are played out with a soundtrack (all live, of course) of songs by Kurt Weill and lyricists he worked with in the first half of the 20th century.
In previews, Neuwirth entered the joint singing "Bilbao Song," a song known by Weill fans but not necessarily a rousing "this-is-who-I-am" show tune. Audiences pricked up their ears, listened to the number and realized they were in for something different — an exploration, an experiment. The show has been selling out in previews.
The new theatrical musical event aims to exploit the sort of grit, longing and passions associated with the old songs of composer Weill, who penned German cabaret songs and theatre music for Broadway. According to the announcement, "In Here Lies Jenny, a one-time saloon singer at the end of the line arrives at a bar that, like her, has seen better days. Clutching what's left of her life in a small canvas bag, Jenny is drawn inside the joint, at once foreign and painfully familiar. She finds herself singing along to the music playing – the soundtrack, strangely enough, of her life. Searching for something, someone, she seduces and rejects the bar denizens in her way. Through the music, Jenny relives the highs and lows of her checkered existence and finally finds a strength she didn't know she had – the strength to face another day."
Audiences in previews have been embracing the intermissionless show as a sort of conceptual revue rather than a conventional character-driven musical.
Several Jennys are featured in Weill musicals, including The Threepenny Opera and Lady in the Dark, though the new effort seems to want to expose a timeless persona, a mythic Everywoman.
The new, original, constructed piece plays 36 performances and features choreography by Neuwirth's Chicago collaborator, Ann Reinking, and is conceived and directed by Roger Rees, Neuwirth's fellow actor from her days on "Cheers."
Leslie Stifelman handles music direction and music supervision for this new entertainment, which uses songs from Weill's German cabaret and theatre days, as well as tunes from when he was a Broadway composer (when he preferred his name to be pronounced "while" not "vile").
Rees (Nicholas Nickleby), Reinking (Chicago, Fosse) and Neuwirth (Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees, Chicago) are all Tony Award winners, now experimenting with this new work in relative obscurity below 42nd Street — and late at night.
Just as some of Weill's famous German songs explored low dives, whiskey bars and untested places, the collaborators find refuge — at 11 PM Thursdays-Saturdays — in the funky Off-Broadway performance space called The Zipper, at 336 W. 37th Street, onetime home to BETTY Rules.
Here Lies Jenny is presented by Maria DiDia, Kathryn Frawley, Hugh Hayes, Martin Platt & The Zipper Theatre with Green Moon Gang. Performances continue to July 24.
Here Lies Jenny features the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, Roger Fernay, Ira Gershwin, Jehuda Halevi, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, Maurice Margre, Ogden Nash, Franz Werfel and Kurt Weill.
Designers are Neil Patel (scenic), Kaye Voyce (costume), Frances Aronson (lighting) and Tony Meola (sound).
Arrangements and incidental music are by Jeff Saver, additional arrangement are by Chris Fenwick & Joe Thalken.
Listed in alphabetical order in the Playbill, the songs used in the show are "A Boy Like You," "Army Song," "Barbara's Song," "Belin im Licht-Song," "Bilbao Song," "Children's Game," "Don't Be Afraid," "In meinem Garten," "In Our Childhood's Bright Endeavor," "Je ne t'aime pas," "Marterl," "Oh Heavenly Salvation," "Pimps Ballad," "Saga of Jenny," "Song of Ruth," "Song of the Big Shot," "Stranger Here Myself," "Surabaya Johnny," "Susan's Dream," "The Tale of the Soldier's Wife," "Youkali: Tango Habanera."
Tickets range $35-$60. For tickets, calling Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200 or visit the Zipper Theatre box office.