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Elaine Stritch turns 85 next month, but nobody can accuse her of slacking off. She’s swinging for the bleachers in her new show at Cafe Carlyle, “Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim … One Song at a Time,” a tribute to Broadway’s premier composer-lyricist for his upcoming 80th birthday.
In this one-hour set, Stritch tackles a baker’s dozen of Sondheim’s verbally intricate, emotionally demanding songs. If she didn’t hit the hoped-for home run at the reviewed performance, that probably was because it was only her second time in front of an audience. The show hasn’t settled into her bones yet, as evidenced by too many fumbles for lyrics and a tendency to be slightly behind or ahead of the musical phrase in ways that seemed distinctly unplanned.
But Stritch being Stritch, she is sure to pull this show together. And when she does, look out.
One of her smartest choices has been to cull material (with a single exception) from the master’s early career, 1957-73. A vibrant portrait of the young Sondheim emerges, a confident fellow luxuriating in his considerable abilities as he expands the boundaries of the American musical. Surprisingly, there’s as much insouciance and high spirits as there is cynicism and angst.
Stritch begins with a delightfully dry “I Feel Pretty” (music by Leonard Bernstein) that proves once and for all that Maria would indeed, as Sondheim has remarked about a lyric he now finds inappropriate to character, “not be unwelcome in Noel Coward’s living room.” Then she sets the bar for the evening by announcing her intention to perform “Rose’s Turn” (music by Jule Styne). Stritch never got the chance to play the titanic role of Momma Rose in “Gypsy” and wants to partially rectify that.
It’s a bold choice for cabaret, a medium in which the experts routinely advise performers to be themselves and not play a character. As she tears into this iconic musical nervous breakdown, she makes consistently intelligent acting choices. She doesn’t have the whole play behind her to inform the character, and yet Rose is suddenly, thrillingly there. Alas, midway she fumbled the lyric and never quite managed to recover. She even noted this in a passing remark afterward, something along the lines of it doesn’t matter if you mess that song up because Rose is such an emotional mess. She has a point. Stritch never fumbles her emotions; she always knows exactly what she’s singing about. Nevertheless, in material such as this, messing up the words matters. The mishap seemed to dog her for the rest of the evening; she even got lost in signature material such as “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” never again reaching the level of effortless authority displayed in her first song.
That said, there are many terrific moments, including a penetrating “Everybody Says Don’t”; a wonderfully cheeky “Love Is in the Air”; a smartly bifurcated “Broadway Baby” that begins introspectively, then changes to a full-throated, brassy Broadway shout; and especially a lovely, ruminative “A Parade in Town” that mines the song’s subdued pathos. Her unadorned recitation of the lyric for “Every Day a Little Death” is stunning. “Send in the Clowns” is deceptively tossed off at first; then, after an amusing personal story connected to it, there is a breathtaking moment when she instantly switches back to the song proper with devastating emotional effectiveness. That kind of moment takes a legend.
Musical director Rob Bowman provides invaluable and sensitive support at the piano, leading an excellent ensemble of six as they execute Jonathan Tunick’s fine orchestrations. Perhaps if Stritch had employed the services of a director, she might have felt more secure. Nevertheless, I’m confident she’ll get there on her own. After all, she’s Stritch.
Venue: Cafe Carlyle, New York (through Jan. 30)
Musical director: Rob Bowman
Orchestrated by: Jonathan Tunick
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