Prisoner of Love: An Autobiographical Cabaret reviewed by Natalie Lifson
Love is an emotion that makes you feel both powerful and vulnerable at once. It is for this very reason that nobody could have performed Prisoner of Love, a cabaret show arranged by the late Barry Levitt and directed by Peter Napolitano at Urban Stages Theater, better than Andrea Bell Wolff. A tiny woman who couldn’t have been taller than 5’2, she commanded a presence as soon as she parted the curtains to step foot on the stage. Immediately, the packed audience stopped their chatter and fell silent. As the music, flawlessly performed by pianist Matthew Martin Ward, violinist Rob Thomas, percussionist Howie Gordon, and bassist Saadi Zain, picked up, Andrea’s voice echoed throughout the venue, just as powerful and vulnerable as the air she gave off upon entering the room. Andrea, who performed on Broadway and national tours for Hello, Dolly! , George M!, Li’l Abner, Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, and Funny Girl , as well as a variety of other theatre credits, certainly lives up to her reputation as a versatile singer and actress.
Throughout the performance, Andrea made it abundantly clear that Prisoner of Love was more than just a cabaret show it was an autobiographical journey of her love life from her time as a 16 year old on the national tour of Hello, Dolly
flitting from man to man to her marriage to her current supportive husband.
Between her songs, she shared stories and anecdotes with the charismatic charm people have come to expect from her, such as the time she went to a psychic about her romantic problems and the time she destroyed her cheating ex-boyfriend’s belongings while he was on vacation with his exwife. The songs themselves were carefully chosen to fit into Andrea’s timeline of stories; by connecting the songs through theme, Wolff was able to explore a wide variety of genres in Prisoner of Love , ranging from traditional musical theater to bluesy to pop. Late music director Barry Levitt, who Urban Stage’s Winter Rhythms Festival is dedicated to, artfully rearranged songs such as James Brown’s This is a Man’s World and Rihanna’s Man Down into powerful musical theatrestyle pieces that perfectly complemented Wolff’s voice.
The song choices particularly highlighted Wolff’s versatility, both in voice and in acting abilities. Andrea Bell Wolff demonstrated her ability to belt just as well as she can sing softly. Similarly, à la Kristen Chenoweth, she was able to appear just as sweet during some songs as she was able to appear harsh in others. Throughout the cabaret, she wore her emotions on her sleeve and completely immersed herself not only in the songs, but in the individual personas she developed for each song. Song and story topics ranged from young infatuation to vengeful murder, but Wolff managed to seamlessly shift from comedic acting to tragic and back again in an instant on multiple occasions. With her fantastic performance in Prisoner of Love , Wolff made abundantly clear that she is more than just a singer, more than just an actress, but a storyteller as well, and a fantastic one at that.
Apart from Andrea Bell Wolff’s overwhelming talent, Napolitano’s excellent directorial decisions were icing on the cake. Through very few additions to the stage, Napolitano managed to transform a blackbox theatre into a warm, intimate venue that perfectly reflected the performance. The colorful projectors on the back of the stage reflected the spirits of the individual songs and only served to immerse the audience in the emotional artistic atmosphere. Beyond that, the placement of the musicians around Wolff in a semicircle, which made is seem as though she were surrounded on all sides save for a significant amount of blank space in the center, served to highlight her and make an already intimate venue feel even more intimate. Finally, Andrea’s physical presence, as directed by Napolitano, significantly contributed to the excellent performance. At no point did Andrea stay in one spot and simply sing. Rather, she paced the stage, used hand and bodily gestures to engage the audience, and made great use of the wooden stool that was provided to her. As a result of Napolitano’s efforts, I was visually engaged throughout the entire performance.
As the show drew to a close, Andrea teared up as she paid tribute to Barry Levitt, the great Broadway and off-Broadway music director who Urban Stage’s entire Winter Rhythms Festival, of which Prisoner of Love was a part, was in tribute to after he passed at age 70 in September. But more importantly to Andrea, Barry was a dear friend and artistic collaborator who worked over a year with her to arrange Prisoner of Love and was otherwise endlessly supportive of both her career and her as an individual. “I am still a prisoner of love,” Andrea choked out as she spoke of Barry and his considerable influence on her life even after his passing, “but of a different nature.” She went on to explain that throughout the entire show, she imagined Barry sitting there in the corner encouraging her, telling her to “just be Andrea.” Prisoner of Love was a fitting show to perform in tribute to Barry Levitt not just because he poured so much energy and dedication to making it happen, but because it is clear how much love Andrea held for him during his life and continues to hold for him after his death. Prisoner of Love is more than just a cabaret, more than just the story of Wolff’s extensive love life, but an emotional journey that enraptured the audience and took every one of us for a ride.