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Princess of Tides

David Finkle catches up with ex-funny girl Barbra Streisand at Madison Square Garden. logo

So, gorgeous, was it like buttah? Yes, Barbra Streisand's supposed farewell concert at Madison Square Garden was like buttah. And, in a way, so was I. Truth to tell, I melted when the Brooklyn expatriate sang the words "scattered pictures" during her early-in-show rendition of "The Way We Were." She stretched the four notes, dipping sumptuously into them. The instant she did that, she had me in the palm of her long- fingered, long-nailed hand.

Unleashing her clarion voice on 35 songs--she counted, I didn't--Streisand took breathtaking liberties time and again. Why? How? She told us that, in her childhood, "I didn't know where the notes came from." Then she added, "I still don't." Well, wherever they come from, they never seem to come out the same way twice. Spontaneity and effortless risk-taking remain the chief glories of Streisand's live performances; when she sings, the audience intuits that what they're hearing is once-in-a-lifetime. Of course, there are many other glories: the purity of her sound, the suppleness and the brilliance, her ability to shift mid-phrase from a fluid tone to a steely one and then shift back. There's the exquisite attention to lyrics. There's the power she places behind every melody, as if it's being raised by a hydraulic lift.

Her two-act toodle-oo was called Timeless (the new CD of the concert, recorded on New Year's Eve in Las Vegas, carries the same title). And time was definitely on Streisand's mind for this concert, as she offered a more-or-less chronological look back at her career. The concert began with "You'll Never Know," the first song Streisand ever recorded (at Nola Studios in 1955, when she was 13). But reminiscing wasn't quite enough for her: Aside from calling on an actress (Randee Heller) to play her mother, a tap dancer to represent Time itself, a choir to provide clouds of support, and Shirley MacLaine for a filmed fireside chat, she brought out young Lauren Frost to portray the inner-child Streisand.

Corny? Somewhat. But it worked at the beginning of the show. And it worked like gangbusters again at the first-act curtain, when Streisand brought the game young Frost back to sing along with her on a medley of Yentl tunes as scenes from that film--complete with soundtrack--flashed on huge screens. The sheer theatricality of Streisand blaring "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" (which she introduced by talking about her own father, who died when she was 15 months old) with Frost as a young version of herself and with her own Yentl was not only moving, it was magnanimous. The roar that greeted the final explosive notes was probably the loudest in an evening of roars and predictable cries of "We love you, Barbra!" that broke through the occasional hush.

Leafing through the Barbra Streisand Songbook, she offered many a lagniappe: numbers like "Cry Me A River" to recall her days appearing at Manhattan's Bon Soir, "Lover, Come Back to Me" to remind everyone she'd opened for Benny Goodman at Manhattan's Basin Street East, a medley of "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Second Hand Rose" in salute to Fanny Brice and Funny Girl, and "Being Alive" to prove that she has become a first-rate Stephen Sondheim interpreter. She told a story about riding in a cab one day and hearing a song and a singer she liked, whereupon she called the station and was informed that she had been the one chirping. Streisand insisted the tale was true--but who'd fall for her not recognizing her own voice when she's been so meticulous about listening to it and assessing it for five decades?

She sang the song anyway. It was "Alfie," and when she got to the final repetition of the name "Alfie," she was suddenly and hopefully cajoling a deadbeat lover. It was a stellar example of the acting chops she brings to bear on a lyric when she's so moved. Did she sing "The Music That Makes Me Dance"? Yes, and she curled the words sensuously. Did she sing "Don't Rain on My Parade"? Yes, and she built the determination of the sentiment as if she were wielding a battering ram. Did she sing Harold Arlen's "A Sleepin' Bee"? Yes, and she endearingly interpolated the word "little" into Truman Capote's lyrics at a crucial moment.

Streisand also offered "Send in the Clowns," but not in its entirety--even though Sondheim was sitting just a few rows in front of her at the first of her two New York concerts. (So were Madeleine Albright, David Dinkins, Regis Philbin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bernadette Peters. Drew Barrymore, Penny Marshall, Rosie O'Donnell, Michel Legrand, Elaine May, and Tony Bennett, as well as Streisand's son, Jason, and her cousin Lowell.) When she sang her wedding song, for which Ann Hampton Callaway supplied the words, Streisand flashed pictures of herself with hubby James Brolin.

Did she sing "Memory"? No. Did she sing "People"? Yes. (She closed with it, of course.) Did patrons--some of whom paid $2500 or more for their seats--get their money's worth? Absolutely. Not only was the diva-of-divas in fine voice, but she was totally un-diva-like as she made herself
at home on stage with her chairs and her teacup. To be sure, there was spectacle: Huge swags had been hung for show curtains and, when they parted, a large orchestra was revealed on platforms set between vaguely Egyptian columns, with a two-dimensional pyramid at the back! (Why a Jewish girl would want to evoke ancient Thebes is anyone's guess. Maybe she meant to suggest that, if she'd been in charge instead of Moses, her people would never have had to quit the place.) There were screens dropping left, right and center, on which were projected copious film clips and stills of the lady. Streisand wore a pants ensemble of burnished gold and, later, a black, off-the shoulder gown, the skirt of which was slit up to there. (According to the program, she herself--not Donna Karan--designed her wardrobe.)

Though Streisand was incomparable, there were a few drawbacks to the concert. To begin with, that fabulous orchestra occasionally sounded as if it were in competition with her and not in tandem. That's obviously not Streisand's fault; William Ross was the musical director. But the lame written portions of the evening, particularly the exchanges with her "mother," are at least partly attributable to Streisand. The $25 program indicates that she wrote and directed the presentation with Kenny Ortega. (She produced the concert, as well.) A few of her inclusions--e.g., the title tune from her flop film The Main Event and a forgettable Marilyn Bergman-Alan Bergman-Dave Grusin love song--weren't on a par with the great Broadway and Hollywood staples she's championed in her best albums, and served as reminders that she hasn't always had impeccable taste when in the market for contemporary songs.

Though Streisand sang perfectly on pitch throughout, as always, she didn't seem to be going for high notes as often as she has in the past, nor was she holding final notes as long. For example, she didn't stay on the ultimate "green" of "Evergreen" as long as she does on her original recording of the song. Perhaps most significantly, she was only infrequently able to move the heart with her songs. Maybe Madison Square Garden isn't the place for that sort of thing; but if anyone should have been able to turn the Garden into a cabaret, it's Streisand, who got her start in intimate boites.

There's one more thing: Along with the glory of Streisand comes her self-glorification. As the numbers followed one after another, she wasn't so much illustrating the way we were as flaunting the way she was. And talk about "scattered pictures"--she amassed them and flashed them repeatedly. Since her formative years were spent as a not-especially-beautiful young girl growing up without a father to reassure here, her need to focus attention on herself is, perhaps, understandable. Good lord, she has practically forced a redefinition of the word "beautiful." One would think that, by now, she could bring herself to lay off the reiterations of her imposing imaging. But she can't, and that sort of thing is as tiresome in person as it was in her last film, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

It may not be surprising that Streisand, now approaching 60, has decided to stop concertizing. She never seemed to care for it very much. In the early days, she even had something of a reputation for not showing up for her late night gigs. When she played Vegas in 1969, she vacillated between being the poor little Noo Yawker and the grand duchess. Now, the logistical demands on her--many of them self-imposed--are daunting. Literally hundreds of people are needed to coordinate her appearances. Yet, the more she performs live for her adoring fans, the better she is at it. Something or someone (Brolin?) seems to have relaxed Streisand since her mid-'90s tour, when she sang great but moved around the stage as if she were the QE II coming in to dock.

It seems a shame that she's calling a stop to in-person singing just when she has it down. My prediction? She'll be back. Like Sarah Bernhardt, Barbra Streisand has got many more farewell tours in her.

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