SUSAN NEUFFER’S “AN ELPEE’S WORTH OF TODD” at Don’t Tell Mama: A Review
Susan Neuffer’s newest solo show, An Elpee’s Worth of Todd, brilliantly honors the music as well as the musical legacy (so far…) of a true Renaissance man and unsung hero of pop culture: Todd Rundgren. A multi-talented musician and performer in her own right, Neuffer has created a show which is both entertaining and enlightening– not to mention funny, inspiring, and… deeply personal! As she declared early on in her show, “Welcome to the Church of Todd!” Ms. Neuffer is a Todd Rundgren devotee, which can perhaps best be symbolized by several items she brought with her for the show. One of those items was an original Rundgren album from 1974– the one simply called Todd— in all of its (Gasp!) vinyl glory. For Neuffer, it was love at first listen with A Long Time, A Long Way to Go. The audience will, likewise, fall in love with Neuffer’s dreamy rendition of this track. Later on in her performance, the story of Susan finally meeting her idol is worth the cover charge at of her show alone!
When I had first learned of Neuffer’s An Elpee’s Worth of Todd, which enjoyed two performances at New York City’s cabaret hotspot Don’t Tell Mama, I have to admit that I could not immediately recall who Todd Rundgren was. (I was born in 1971.) Two of my friends, both about a generation older than me, looked at me like I had three heads. One of them then started singing the immortal opening lyrics and melody from one of Rundgren’s most enduring hits: “Hello, it’s me…” Of course, I knew that song. But I certainly did NOT know about Rundgren’s long-lasting imprint on the American music scene, which went far beyond his hit songs and has continued through to this very day: The artist is still touring in 2022 and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was therefore prophetic that Neuffer addresses the Rundgren phenomenon head on; the charismatic singer acknowledged that Rundgren’s creative contributions through the decades may have been lost with the younger generations. Neuffer deserves lots of kudos for so respectfully (and so meticulously) honoring her childhood idol… as well as for reminding all of us about the star’s idiosyncratic style: How could anyone, in any generation, not love an artist with the moxie to declare, “I don’t worry about sabotaging my career. I’m always sabotaging my career. It’s part of my career!”
A large part of Rundgren’s legacy were his lyrics. Fantastically emblematic of their time, those lyrics often explored the clash between idealism (the feeling, perhaps for the first time in history, that anything was possible) versus the realism (It’s a rough, often cruel world out there…) With Rundgren as one of her influences, it is only fitting that she embodies the persona of a true woman of rock and roll: idealistic yet realistic– and subsequently, Todd’s lyrics are particularly well-suited for Neuffer’s style, particularly in songs like Remember Me and Sons of 1984. Neuffer’s voice is smooth and masterfully controlled, with an aura of cool restraint. That said, the singer has an impressive range. She can occasionally send out a well delivered high note when the audience least expects it: Her take on Rundgren’s 1976 Cliche is perhaps the finest display of that aforementioned range, as is her take on Stood Up from 2004. Her delivery of that closing lyric of Saving Grace, “I know they won’t believe it…”, is no less than delectable. Throughout much of her set, she displays a distinct downplaying of the vulnerability which so many cabaret artists strive to convey on stage. Again, in the style of the women of rock, her idea of vulnerably is more along the lines of, “You have to WORK to get inside this heart of mine… but once you prove your devotion, it will be worth it!” Real Man is performed with sincerity and empathy; it’s also an example of the fine harmony between Neuffer and her fellow musicians (Gerry Dieffenback on piano, Louis Tucci on bass and accordion, and Wendy Russell on background vocals; Dieffenbach is also Musical Director.) Even with cultural definitions of “real man” consistently changing throughout the decades, the lyrics are both emblematic of their time and still wildly applicable as we enter 2023. Not all the songs are quite as “deep”, of course! Neuffer’s delivery of the delightful Song of the Viking is a campy, catchy delight and an audience pleaser– complete with Neuffer breaking out the flute(!). Later on, the audience was treated to the darkly comic Flappie, which was recorded by Rundgren as a 2020 pandemic holiday present to his fans. It’s an English translation of a Dutch novelty song, the lyrics of which describe (SPOILER ALERT!) a boy who is angry with his father for cooking their family’s pet rabbit on Christmas. This one is guaranteed to shake up the holiday dinner playlist!
If Neuffer solely gave the audience a playlist of Todd Rundgren’s best loved hits, the show would have been a crowd-pleasing success already. But An Elpee’s Worth of Todd also musically explores other aspects of Rundgren’s life, including his friends, lovers, etc. Therefore, Lennon/’s/McCarthy’s Rain/We Can Work it Out, segued into Todd’s I Think You Know, was inspired by the famous, oft-analyzed “feud” between Rundgren and Lennon. Performed by Neuffer, it’s a fantastic interpretation, and indeed a fine example of the aforementioned lyrical aspirations (idealism versus realism) of the era. Likewise, Neuffer performs a certain “Patti L. Smith”‘s Dancing Barefoot as a musical exploration of the, shall we say, passionate relationship between Smith and Neuffer. Next up was It Takes Two to Tango (This is for the Girls), from 1972, which was not only perfectly suited for Neuffer’s attitude and style, but was yet again a showcase of her perfect harmony with her backup musicians:
Directed by Lennie Watts, Susan Neuffer’s An Elpee’s Worth of Todd lovingly and thoroughly explores the oh-so-impressive legacy of a man who was no less than a revolutionary in several ways: not just in regard to music but also with his ultimate, transgenerational impact on pop culture. There was, to put it simply, far more than just those well-known Top 10 hits. What about Hello, it’s Me? It wasn’t even in the show!
An Elpee’s Worth of Todd closed with Just One Victory-– which, as Rundgren’s fans already know, was always the song that Todd himself closed with at his live shows. Using the song as a reminder for all of us to V-O-T-E, Neuffer’s version was just perfect. I won’t give away the encore, except to say that Neuffer finally shows a level of that so-called “vulnerability” which she had restrained from showing us throughout most of the show. It was haunting and affecting, accented perfectly with touches of piano by Dieffenbach. The audience, once again, was clearly moved.