Unable to find many roles in theater, film, and TV that suit their protean talents, honored veterans of show business are turning with increasing frequency to the medium of the one-person musical stage show. More often than not, the results are happy for all concerned; current entertainments showcasing Beatrice Arthur and Barbara Cook are stellar examples of the form, and I hear that the inimitable Ann Miller is also planning such a production. But we'll probably never see a better one-woman show than Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre after a wildly successful run downtown at the Public.
One of the most scintillating performers in Broadway history, Stritch has had the kind of dramatic, celebrity-filled, roller-coaster life that lends itself to being recounted on stage. Here, anecdotes about everyone from Noël Coward to Richard Burton to George Gobel to Judy Garland are supplied in abundance. (Merman, for whom Stritch stood by in Call Me Madam on Broadway before taking over the role of Sally Adams for the tour, is the impetus for at least two side-splitting stories.)
With her raspy voice and wry demeanor, Stritch has often projected a stage persona of world-weary, urban sophistication, but in At Liberty she stresses her vulnerability and her roots as a kid from Michigan who attended convent schools. She also makes fun of her own naïvete, confessing that when she sang the line "A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler's" in "The Ladies Who Lunch" in Company, she thought "a piece of Mahler's" referred to a pastry from a theater district bake shop. And she claims that she delivered the line "I'm a heterosexual" in "Zip" from Pal Joey thinking all the while that "heterosexual" meant "homosexual."
The lady's incredible versatility is fully displayed here. One of the most delightful sequences of At Liberty is Stritch's recreation of the number that served as her introduction to Broadway in the revue Angel in the Wings, a novelty song titled "Civilization" but perhaps better known (by those who know it at all!) as "Bongo Bongo Bongo, I Don't Want to Leave the Congo." Yet she is equally persuasive in more serious material like "The Party's Over" (Styne-Comden-Green) and in the high comedy of "I've Been to a Marvelous Party" (Coward). Even though the show doesn't contain excerpts from her dramatic work in such plays as Bus Stop, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Stritch can do anything.
Truth to tell, At Liberty has some structural problems. As great as it is to hear Stritch sing Coward's "If Love Were All" and the Gershwins' "But Not For Me," this moving sequence should probably not serve as the first-act closer. Similarly, though Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" (from Follies) is well suited to Stritch in many respects, it's hardly the sort of song you expect to hear in the second-act-opener spot. But if some the placement of some of the numbers is questionable, the choice of repertoire admits no criticism. Stritch somehow manages to include most if not all of the songs she made famous on Broadway in her long career, so it's unlikely that any of her fans will be disappointed because something major has been left out.
At any rate, Stritch is so committed, so charismatic, so "present" on stage that any minor miscalculations in the show seems insignificant. One of the most laudable aspects of At Liberty is that its star deals honestly and unashamedly with her alcoholism, a lifelong problem that began when her father offered her a taste of a whiskey sour at age 13. (As she remembers this momentous moment, she sings a few lines of "This Is All Very New to Me"--here presented in a completely different context than in the show from which it is taken, Plain and Fancy.) Stritch's "The Ladies Who Lunch" is still an iconic musical theater moment. And At Liberty is almost literally worth the price of admission for its inclusion of "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Coward's Sail Away. To say that Stritch owns this song is a no-brainer.
Throughout the evening, the star's unique brand of vocalism is supported by a band that consists of nine members but sounds at least half again as large, thanks to the orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick. In terms of production values, At Liberty is the last word in simplicity: Costumed in a loose, open-collared white shirt and black tights, Stritch plays on a stage that is bare except for one high stool, against a faux-brick-wall backdrop designed by Riccardo Hernández. The lighting, by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, is extraordinarily helpful in easing the star's theatrical transitions from one time and/or place to another.
Stritch has a reputation for volatility and stubbornness; a former colleague of hers once informed me, "Nobody ever tells that lady what to do!" Perhaps all of this explains the odd program credit which tells us us that the show was "constructed by John Lahr and reconstructed by Elaine Stritch." We can only wonder what it took to arrive at this billing, even as we wonder how deeply or peripherally director George C. Wolfe was involved in the process of putting the show together.
Happily, the audience is not privy to whatever angst might have been involved in bringing Elaine Stritch: At Liberty to the stage. The final product has been greeted with great joy by audiences and critics; unless Stritch's unique talents are not to your taste for some reason, you will almost certainly join the throng in welcoming her back to Broadway. Though the Neil Simon is, of course, much larger than the show's berth at the Public, Stritch manages to maintain a feeling of intimacy. Even Joanne, the caustic, cocktail-loving broad played to perfection by E.S. in Company, would have to admit that At Liberty has more kick than a vodka stinger.