At the risk of being physically assaulted by friends who are ferocious devotees, I'll say Barbra Streisand is past her prime. No, wait. They might leave scars. I’ll be circumspect and modify it to say Streisand is sadly no longer in optimum voice.
Streisand has a wholly unique velvety legato and expressive coloring to her voice; her phrasing and delivery are expressive and dramatic. But at age 70, she has a narrowing vocal range. When she wants to belt, she turns hoarse. And her lower notes, frankly, are not as crisp.
A sentimental homecoming/act of noblesse oblige, “Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn” airs on KUED Friday, Nov. 29, at 8 p.m. Throughout the PBS-taped concert, Streisand makes loving references to the New York City borough she couldn’t wait to escape 50 years ago.
The self-indulgent concert opens with “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the musical “Sunset Boulevard.” Written for aging actress Norma Desmond (draw your own conclusion), the song has lyrics rewritten to create forced rhymes of Brooklynese references: “knishes” and “delicious”; “docks" and "nova lox.” There’s an ear-shattering, sustained cheer when she lets loose with the phrase “I’ve come home at last!”
Selections follow from chapters of her career, including “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (from her appearance on “The Judy Garland Show”); “Enough Is Enough (No More Tears)” (her disco Donna Summer duet); “My Funny Valentine” (from “Simply Streisand”); and “The Way We Were” (in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch). Each has a new arrangement to accommodate her thinned range. And then there are songs from recent albums, like “Nice ’N’ Easy,” “That Face,” “Some Other Time” and “Here’s to Life.”
Showing all the spontaneity of a NASA shuttle launch, Streisand delivers running commentary throughout the evening. There’s no hiding the massive teleprompters easily viewed by the crowd. The script continues when she selects questions from a box to spontaneously answer that have been submitted by audience members in advance. Look closely and you can see she locates the cards in the preplanned sequence. Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent springs to mind.
One asks if she was aware that contemporary singers lip sync. “I’ve heard about that. I could never do it because I’m so bad at it. So I have to apologize because I have to sing live,” she says as the audience roars. One refers to Streisand as a “living legend,” prompting her to quip that she didn't mind the term so long as the word “living” is still in it.
After her farewell concerts in 1999 and the farewell-farewell tour in 2006, the essential question is why. As her voice has changed rather noticeably, why return to concerts when she has always expressed a fear of singing for large audiences?
I have my theory. She is sending a message.
Universal Pictures has announced it is going forward with a “Gypsy” remake starring Streisand in the Ethel Merman/Rosalind Russell role as Mamma Rose, the bigger-than-life stage mother of vaudevillian Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s the greatest musical comedy role ever written for a woman, and Streisand is passionately yearning to cap her career playing the character in a new film version.
The concert becomes an audition when she chooses two breakout songs from “Gypsy”: “Rose’s Turn” and “Some People.” Then pointedly “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” immediately follows as the only show tune medley. As if to say, “I was fabulous in ‘Funny Girl,’ but just wait for my ‘Gypsy’!”
Streisand was the first performer to win an EGOT, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, deservedly winning the Tony and Oscar for “Funny Girl.” And no one will ever touch the magnificence of “People,” somehow sung at this concert without feeling obligatory.
But her rampant ego dramatically reshaped “Hello, Dolly!” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” two later stage-to-film adaptations, into pale imitations. The fear is “Gypsy” may be retitled “Momma Rose.”