Elaine Stritch
(© Denise Winters)
Elaine Stritch
(© Denise Winters)
How do you top perfection? You don't. You can, however, attempt to reach it again -- and that's exactly what Elaine Stritch tries to do in Elaine Stritch at Home at the Carlyle...Again.

Last year, Stritch was rightfully the hottest cabaret attraction in town. Despite the fact that it was her cabaret debut, what she put together was among the most beautifully crafted, most fully realized, and most organic nightclub acts we have ever seen. Her new show isn't as good as her first, but that certainly doesn't mean it's a bust. Hardly; even with its modest imperfections, it's still a standout. The difference between the two shows is simply that the first was better written and tighter in its execution. What both have in common, however, is the one thing that no other show can touch: Elaine Stritch herself.

Stritch strides out singing "The Life of the Party," a little known song from Kander & Ebb's The Happy Time, and delivers it with a light, bright sense of humor. Buoyant and bouncy, she takes center stage and essentially acknowledges that she is, indeed, the reason we're all there. She then offers a special version of "The Second Time Around" as a wry comment on the advantages and disadvantages of coming back with a second show. The effect is that she gives us two opening numbers, making it difficult for her to get the show out of first gear.

Like last year's act, this one is patter-heavy. Stritch has plenty of stories to tell, and nobody tells them better, but it may be that she imparted her best tales last year; some of this year's patter feels like filler, whereas last year every word counted. Still, she's delightful when singing such musical comedy songs as "To Keep My Love Alive", "The Italian Lesson (written for her by Noél Coward for Sail Away), and a decidedly unusual arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me" -- a number that Stritch originally performed under the direction of George Abbott in the 1954 revival of On Your Toes. (She has a great story about that!)

Until it nears its end, the show is somewhat meandering, though fascinating and entertaining. Then, suddenly, Stritch unleashes her genius and sings Jerry Herman's "Song on the Sand" (from La Cage aux Folles) as if her life depended upon it. She performs the number slowly, virtually speaking the words rather than singing them, and creates an entire life inside this one lyric. In fact, she packs so much meaning into the way she reads the word "young" at the conclusion of the number, reaching for it with a palpable but impossible yearning, that you can't help but think you've just heard the definitive rendition of the song.

Like a boxer knocking out her audience with a combination one-two punch, Stritch finishes us off with Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch," the song that practically earned her a Tony Award nomination when she performed it in the original 1970 production of Company. With these two numbers in a row, she unequivocally demonstrates that the old gal's still got it, and she turns a good show into a great one!