Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Theater Review: Elaine Stritch at Liberty

There she was, a phenomenon called Elaine Stritch, on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater in January of ‘52. The play was the splendid revival of a 1940 musical by Rodgers and Hart, Pal Joey. And Stritch, who made her entrance in Act II, performed “Zip,” a show-stopper that explained how her character, a reporter, interviewed various famous personalities (Pablo Picasso, a countess named di Frasso and the great Stravinsky), but her “greatest achievement was the interview” she “had with the star who worked for Minsky.” I was young, a graduate student at Columbia University at the time, and I returned to the Broadhurst Theater to watch the number so often that I was forced to take a job at the now defunct Gimbels department store in order to support my theater habit. It was, as the cliché attests, love at first sight. Now in her mid-80s, Stritch continues to heat up the boards at various theaters and clubs throughout the country and in Europe. The first time I saw her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, was (in 2002) during its sold-out engagement at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York -- and it is a performance not to be missed. There is, too, a superb DVD of the production, which was filmed at London’s Old Vic.

Stritch has had a long, successful career in theater; and so, she appropriately begins the event with her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” But because she has so much to relate, she’ll tell a tale, give us a bit of gossip, impart a joke between the verses of a song. She interrupts the opening number, for example, to relate a one-liner about a prostitute who once said, “It’s not the work; it’s the stairs.” And musical numbers (many of them from shows in which she appeared) are always smoothly connected to hilarious or pertinent stories. Her timing is impeccable and those vocal pauses are always interlined with significance. There are priceless sketches about Stritch’s association with Ethel Merman,Judy Garland and Noel Coward. (Once, after drinking backstage with Stritch for hours, Garland crapulously stammered, “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this but goodnight.”) We also get revelatory stories about Stritch’s addiction to alcohol, as well as recollections of dates with Marlon Brando, Gig Young, Ben Gazzara and Rock Hudson. Hudson, she admits, turned out to be “a bum choice.”

The theatrical event was “constructed” by New Yorker writer and critic John Lahr and “reconstructed” by Stritch. It has been skillfully directed by George C. Wolfe. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer are responsible for the sublime lighting. And the musical arrangements by Jonathan Tunick are flawless. There is almost nothing in the way of scenery. The only visible prop is a single chair. And Stritch’s “costume” is simply a long, tailored white shirt and black tights. But this show achieves something that more elaborate scenery-laden entertainments often do not. The show has style, honesty, power and a great, pungent, central performance.

As Stritch so effectively tells us, she is, to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, a Broadway Baby who does get to strut her stuff. And if you believe that this is beginning to sound like a love letter to Elaine Stritch, you’d be absolutely right.