It’s been several decades since Barbra Streisand had any real connection to the world of New York cabaret. But that, of course, is how her career began—in such small clubs as the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel, where she became a sensation while en route to becoming a legend. In 2009, she gave a nod to that distant but essential part of her resumé by giving (and filming) a performance at the Village Vanguard in support of her CD “Love Is the Answer.” That event allowed one to imagine a parallel Barbra Streisand universe, one in which Broadway and Hollywood had never happened for her—where she had, instead, remained a New York singer, a household name only to an enthusiastic group of avid cabaret-goers.
It’s a delusional fantasy, of course. Once talent like Streisand’s has been loosed on the world, there’s no luring it back to an enclave (especially when the owner of that talent loves to buy beautiful things that gigs at the Duplex wouldn’t exactly pay for). After the Village Vanguard show, she returned to arenas and stadiums, with a string of shows in 2012 and 2013, including her first performances ever in Israel. Now she’s back again, with a more compact itinerary: a one-month, 10-date mini-tour of North America called “Barbra: The Music… The Mem’ries… The Magic!” I caught her on the second night of a two-show engagement at Brooklyn’s enormous Barclays Center.
Co-directed by Streisand and Richard Jay-Alexander, the show was a somewhat scaled-back affair—meant, perhaps, to be a compromise between her customary extravaganzas and something more in character with the Village Vanguard show. She performed with a medium-size band with few strings. And she was generous with the number of songs she sang and the detailed anecdotes she shared. Although at the show I attended she had special guest performers (Jamie Fox and Patrick Wilson), they were duet partners, not soloists. The star only briefly left the stage during the show, which ran well over 2-1/2 hours, counting a 20-minute intermission. For someone who has described herself as lazy, the Queen Bee found herself in a hive of industriousness.
The evening’s program was split. The first half featured songs from Streisand’s number-one albums over the last six decades; the second highlighted selections from her upcoming duets album, “Encore,” which consists of musical-theatre songs performed with movie stars who sing.
Unfortunately, much of the first set of the Saturday show was plagued by some sort of sound-system difficulty that made the music sound tinny, at least where I was sitting. (The problem evaporated later in the show.) An early highlight was the tender “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (Neil Diamond, Marilyn & Alan Bergman). The song has never been among my favorites on the Streisand hit list. But when I covered her 1994 performance in Las Vegas, I singled it out as a winner then as well. The song works especially well in a concert setting because the Bergmans’ lyrics give the singer something dramatic to act. Also impressive was the fervent “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” (Michel Legrand, the Bergmans) from the film Yentl. The song—which included a coda referencing another number from the film, “A Piece of Sky”—brought Act 1 to an emotional conclusion.
The second half was stronger than the first. It included live duets with Wilson and Fox, as well as a surprisingly effective “virtual” collaboration, in which Streisand sang opposite a filmed recording from the late Anthony Newley of his and Leslie Bricusse’s “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?” The richest performances of the evening, though, were two solo turns from the deluxe version of the new album. The first was Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” which ended with the projected image of the singer’s mouth caught in a rictus of love-sick anguish. The other was her final encore—a moving, eloquently rendered version of Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
Part of the thrill of Streisand’s singing in days past was the effortlessness with which her voice could summon any note, turn any phrase. Listen to some of her rare live performances from the late 1960s or early 1970s and you’ll experience astonishment after astonishment. But while she can still deliver the musical goods now, she clearly has to labor a bit to keep it all under control and, especially, to minimize and/or sidestep what has become known to her admirers as “The Rasp”: a husky crackle in the throat that comes unbidden, confounding even her celebrated will power.
But, to quote a song from Funny Girl: “Know what? So what.” In a way, it’s good to consider that Streisand shares some human limitations with the rest of us—that she has to exert some effort once in a while to make things fly. Also, this is a woman whose appeal has long resided in her defiance of those who’ve said “don’t”—people who’ve called her too brash, too loud, too unattractive, too political. Why shouldn’t she carry that same defiance into her twilight years? If The Rasp slips in sometimes, so be it. It’ll be a golden Rasp. Maybe platinum.
Meanwhile, if she eventually grows tired of big arenas and Hollywood hassles, she can always make that alternate reality of a New York Cabaret Streisand not so alternate. Ours, after all, is a welcoming world for singers with some mileage and a ding or two on their vocal cords.
So. Think about it, Barb. We’ll figure out the details of the commute from Malibu later.
“Barbra: The Music… The Mem’ries… The Magic!”
Barclays Center – August 11, 13
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.