Elaine Stritch
(© Denise Winters)
Elaine Stritch
(© Denise Winters)
Admittedly, there's a certain unintended irony in Elaine Stritch calling her new show, At Home At The Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim. . . Again. Why Not? Why not? As audiences at her star-studded September 13 opening night can attest, the 86-year-old star is apparently having considerable trouble remembering her lyrics, even to songs she's performed numerous times before.

I say "Who cares!" Being in the same room with Stritch remains one of the world's greatest privileges. Her sense of humor, her rapport with the audience -- hell, her willingness to admit she screwed up (and trying to get it right with the help of her invaluable and patient music director, Rob Bowman) -- is all part of this singular experience. And let's face it, you probably know the words, even if she doesn't!

And even if this isn't a case of "when she's bad, she's better," when she's good, she's magnificent! Listening to her sing her two big numbers from 1970's Company, "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "The Little Things You Do Together," makes you realize no one will ever completely capture the sardonic, self-mocking nature of Joanne the way she can.

When she simply recites the lyrics to "Every Day a Little Death" without musical accompaniment -- creating a magnificent tone poem in the process -- you fully realize how brilliant an actress Stritch can be (and what an absolutely great writer Sondheim is!) Even with a flub or two, the words to the tongue-twisting "Everybody Says Don't" take on new resonance. (She's right, you'll be thinking about them long after you leave!)

These songs, like many of the others in the act, is typical of Stritch's still-fearless can-do attitude. Can one think of another octogenarian who would open her act with "I Feel Pretty" -- and then manage to practically redefine the song in the process? And would anyone then follow it up with a defiantly dramatic take on the Gypsy showstopper, "Rose's Turn," that makes one instantly wonder what kind of Mama Rose the actress would have been if she had ever gotten the chance to perform the landmark role.

Plenty of performers would simply shy away from "Send in the Clowns" -- now Sondheim's most popular song -- but Stritch gives it freshness, in part by adding a touching anecdote about how her late husband, John Bay, sang a parody version (with Sondheim's permission) in a solo show about Groucho Marx.

Indeed, the stories (even if you've heard them before) are almost worth the price of admission. Why did Stritch get turned down by Sondheim when she first asked to perform "Broadway Baby" -- which she does a dynamite version of here -- in the Lincoln Center production of Follies? You'll have to join her at the Carlyle to find out!