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The Hostess With the Mostes' on the Ball

Stritch redux: Brooke Pierce has a terrific time with Image Entertainment's new DVD of Elaine Stritch at Liberty. logo
The cover of the new Elaine Stritch at Liberty DVD proclaims "Judy at the Palace. Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. Streisand at the Garden," and then, boldly, "Stritch on Broadway. Legendary performances come along so rarely." Whether or not Stritch's solo show will come to be considered in the same league as those others, only time will tell, but it certainly was a sensation when it debuted at the Public Theater and then transferred to the Neil Simon Theatre in 2002. Ironically, the DVD that was recently released by Image Entertainment does not capture the show during its Broadway run but, rather, in a live performance at London's Old Vic.

If any one show demanded to be preserved in the visual medium, it wasn't Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which is two and a half hours of Stritch mostly standing, sometimes sitting, and occasionally dancing in a long, white, collared shirt and tights in front of a brick wall. Some fans may find the audio CD of the show, recorded during the Public Theater run, to be sufficient. Still, just as the old pro riveted our attention on stage, she now commands the home viewer's attention with her magnetic presence in this full evening of stories and songs about her life and career.

Stritch tells her story chronologically, more or less, from her Michigan upbringing and her early days of acting training in New York to her recent successes in such shows as Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and Hal Prince's revival of Show Boat. Choice songs are expertly woven into the storyline, allowing Stritch to relive some past triumphs ("Zip" from Pal Joey, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Sail Away) and to tackle numbers that she hasn't performed before ("I'm Still Here"). Other musical selections illuminate her anecdotes -- for example, her sad reading of "There Was Never a Baby Like My Baby" following the story of her beloved husband John Bay's death. And in the "There's No Business Like Show Business" sequence that opens the show, Stritch delivers a series of one-liners in such a way that we can see why she was born to do comedy.

Many of us are used to thinking of Stritch as a wry observer on the sidelines, akin to her booze-loving character in Company, so it's great to see her take center stage so masterfully. It's like having the woman deliver her entire autobiography in person. As funny as she is when making a dry remark or screaming in mock fury, it's in her more delicate moments that Stritch is most effective. When she reminisces about her early days as a Broadway baby, her eyes twinkle like those of a little kid. And when she talks about the more difficult aspects in her life -- particularly, her lifelong struggle with alcohol -- her vulnerability and self-awareness is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Other than a very nicely put together but very brief pictorial montage at the start of the show, the only extra on the DVD is the chapter selection option. Happily, it's a very well designed chapter selection option. Say you want to skip directly to the part where Stritch talks about her bizarre date with Brando: All you have to do is select "Marlon Brando" on the menu. If you'd like to hear her rendering of "I'm Still Here," that's easy to do because all of the songs are listed by title. On the other hand, you probably won't want to skip around much, since the whole show is really one big, long highlight. I do confess to having a few personal favorites, among them Stritch's rendition of "I Want a Long Time Daddy," the hilarious vignette about her time spent understudying Ethel Merman in the New York production of Call Me Madam while simultaneously performing Pal Joey in New Haven, and the tale of her botched audition for The Golden Girls.

The show doesn't seem to have changed much between the Broadway run and this London performance. The only difference I noticed was an addendum to Stritch's Tony Award joke ("There's good news and there's bad news: The good news is I have got a terrific acceptance speech for a Tony. The bad news is I've had it for 45 years") to reflect the fact that she did win that most coveted theatrical honor for this very show. And a well deserved award it was. Heaps of credit also go to co-creator John Lahr and director George C. Wolfe, who helped Stritch make it look easy. Elaine Stritch at Liberty was indeed, as the Tony voters dubbed it, the most "special theatrical event" of 2002, and we're lucky to have it preserved for posterity.

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