- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

NEW YORK — Bebe Neuwirth returned to her old stomping grounds of “Chicago” on New Year’s Eve with a brand new part — in more ways than one.

For one, she high-stepped into the revival as Roxie Hart rather than Velma Kelly, the role that earned her a 1997 Tony Award. Plus, she joined the high-intensity musical with a brand-spankin’-new hip.

Miss Neuwirth, who also celebrated her 48th birthday Sunday, underwent hip-replacement surgery just seven months ago. For many, walking or running again so soon would be a feat. Tackling Bob Fosse choreography sounds insane.

“I got my life back by getting a new hip,” she explains while sipping chamomile tea with honey in a cafe after a recent rehearsal of the Kander and Ebb musical. “I wanted to get out and wiggle again.”

Wiggle she will, though not in the original part she played opposite Joel Grey, James Naughton and Ann Reinking more than a decade ago. This time, she stars in the slightly less physically taxing part of Roxie.

“We couldn’t be more pleased, obviously,” says co-producer Barry Weissler. “When you get a Tony Award-winning star to come back to your show and do it in such a unique, innovative manner, [that] is, I think, historic.”

For Miss Neuwirth, who TV fans know as the brilliant yet chilly Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane on “Cheers” and “Frasier,” re-entering “Chicago” is returning to her first love.

“I can have a good time doing TV shows, and I can have a good time doing films, but at a certain point, I start climbing the walls,” she says. “I’m coming back because I wanted to dance.”

That possibility was fast becoming a long shot for Miss Neuwirth, who had been shimmying in pain since suffering cartilage damage while performing in “A Chorus Line” when she was 21.

“I’ve had a strange hip for a while — it was just a peculiar hip that bothered me every once in a while,” she says, searching for the right word to describe what any dancer fears.

It went from peculiar to downright bad in 2001 while she was performing in “Fosse” on Broadway. The pain continued during a high-concept Kurt Weill revue, “Here Lies Jenny,” in 2004. Miss Neuwirth soon underwent arthroscopic laser surgery to remove cartilage while filming the short-lived “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” Her surgeon told her that she would need a replacement down the road.

“It never really got better,” she says. “I was actually the one who went to my surgeon and said, ‘Can I have a new hip?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Do I need one?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ ”

With the 10th-anniversary celebration of “Chicago” looming this past November, Miss Neuwirth feared she would be limping alongside Chita Rivera and Miss Reinking.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this done as soon as possible.’ Also, the pain is excruciating. Talk to anybody who’s had a hip replacement,” she says.

A titanium hip was implanted during the second week of May at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Within eight weeks, Miss Neuwirth was attending ballet classes, a swift recovery she attributes to good genes and her athletic background.

Returning to “Chicago” for an extended run by her birthday was her next goal. “For completely selfish reasons, I didn’t want to let another year go by without performing. I also wanted to celebrate this gratitude that I feel for being able to dance again,” she says.

Dancing Fosse choreography holds particular meaning for Miss Neuwirth, who as a child trained to be a ballerina in Princeton, N.J. She was in a nonprofessional regional company and feared she never would make it doing pirouettes. At 13, just when she was crafting a really good denial technique, a boyfriend took her to see Mr. Fosse’s “Pippin,” and she recognized herself onstage.

“In a sense, that movement and that world and that choreography — everything about it — resonated. It was like seeing yourself. I said, ‘That’s me, and that’s what I’m going to do.”’

Miss Neuwirth, who trained at the Juilliard School, auditioned for Mr. Fosse when she was 18 for a part in “Dancin,’ ” but was cut. “He was absolutely right,” she says. “I wasn’t ready yet. … I wasn’t strong yet.”

She would prove herself more than strong enough when they reunited for “Sweet Charity,” for which in 1986 she won the first of two Tony Awards. She says she considers Mr. Fosse one of Broadway’s true geniuses.

“His choreography has always made sense to me,” she says of the director-choreographer’s finger-snapping, bowler-hat-tossing and leonine sensuality. “When I was 13, I was right. I had to grow into it.”

Miss Neuwirth’s other stage credits include playing Lola in a “Damn Yankees” revival on Broadway and the title role in a London production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Her petite body remains as lithe as that of a woman decades younger, and her shapely legs always seem to merit audience attention.

Away from the stage, Miss Neuwirth smoldered with sexy intelligence opposite Kelsey Grammar and won two Emmy Awards — not bad for a part originally intended to be just one scene in an episode of “Cheers.”

She got the job during an audition in which she showed up wearing what she thought Lilith would wear — hair in a ballerina bun, a pencil skirt and a white shirt buttoned up to the collar.

Told to return after lunch, she took down her long dark hair and slipped into her regular clothes: a black leather miniskirt and purple satin shirt. The change was so startling that Ted Danson reintroduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Ted,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied, “we met at the reading about an hour ago.”

In film, Miss Neuwirth’s credits include “Say Anything,” “Green Card,” “Jumanji,” “Celebrity,” “Summer of Sam,” “Le Divorce,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Tadpole.”

Even so, she says she feels like an outsider on movie and TV sets. “Yes, I work as an actress,” Miss Neuwirth says, “but the animal I am is a dancer, and that’s different from somebody who grew up wanting to be an actress.”

Now she’ll get another chance to shimmy and strut in fishnets — and all that jazz. Every second and every inch of “Chicago,” Miss Neuwirth says, is brilliant.

“I understand what the show is. I know how it’s best serviced,” she says. “So now I’m just walking around in Roxie’s dancing shoes.”

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