Elaine Stritch: At Liberty

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Elaine Stritch: At Liberty
(Photo: Michal Daniel)

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 stage show. More often than not, the results are happy for all concerned; recent entertainments showcasing Charles Nelson Reilly and Bea Arthur are stellar examples of the form. I also hear that the inimitable Ann Miller is planning such a production. But the one-woman show of the moment is Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, now playing at the Public Theater, and it must be counted as a triumph.

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 actually playing the role of Sally Adams on 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” from 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.”

In program notes, Stritch pals Liz Smith, Hal Prince, and Edward Albee go on about the lady’s versatility, evidence of which is crystal clear in the show itself. 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 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. As it turned out, “I’m Still Here” was one of the least effective numbers in the performance of Sunday, November 4, because Stritch flubbed some of the lyrics. Another scary moment came, incredibly enough, in her signature song: “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. Here, Stritch somehow got ahead of the band by a full measure, but conductor Rob Bowman and his musicians were able to catch up within a few seconds.

Another view of Stritch in performance(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Another view of Stritch in performance
(Photo: Michal Daniel)

At any rate, Stritch is so committed, so charismatic, so “present” on stage that these momentary missteps seem insignificant. One of the most laudable aspects of the show is that she 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” from Plain and Fancy, here presented in a completely different context.) Stritch’s “Ladies Who Lunch” is still an iconic musical theater moment, even in a less-than-brilliant rendition. And At Liberty is almost literally worth the price of admission just because it includes “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, Stritch’s unique brand of vocalism is supported by a band that consists of nine members but sounds at least half again as large. “Jonathan Tunick is a genius” was the comment I heard from a fellow audience member after the show, and that assessment is fair. 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; Hal Prince admits in a program note that she’s “not easy,” and a former colleague of hers once informed me that “Nobody ever tells that lady what to do!” Perhaps all of this explains some last-minute changes in the credits for At Liberty. At various places in the Stagebill, we are told that (1) the show was constructed by John Lahr and reconstructed by Elaine Stritch, and (2) the show was constructed by Elaine Stritch and reconstructed by John Lahr. To settle the question once and for all, an insert makes it clear that #1 above is the correct, final credit–but we can only wonder what it took to arrive at this conclusion and how deeply or peripherally director George C. Wolfe was involved in the process.

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 such joy by audiences and critics that its engagement at the Public has just been extended through December 30. Even Joanne, the caustic, cocktail-loving broad played to perfection by Stritch in Company, would have to admit that this show has more kick than a vodka stinger.

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