Review: Elaine Stritch wows with her musical autobiography

Monday, 20 October 2008 06:49 AM Written by 

Life isn't fair; neither is art. Who knew that "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," her one-time, one-woman show, done as a benefit for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre with a fairly pricey ticket, would be one of the great theater evenings of the year?

You might say that I did know, since I saw the same show six and a half years ago on Broadway and loved it. In fact, it's still so vivid, I was surprised to discover it was that long ago. And in last Wednesday's preview article (read it here), writing with the advantage of hindsight, I did say Pittsburgh was in for a treat.

But I was still blown away.

It has something to do with the intimacy of the Charity Randall Theater at Stephen Foster. And it has something to do with the audience, which was packed in (downstairs, anyway) and primed from the start, an audience that knew Stritch and lapped up every anecdote and devoured every song.

But mainly, it was Stritch herself. Perhaps she's even better now, having done the show not just on Broadway and in London's West End but intermittently on tour. Perhaps six years have added depth and resonance.

No, I don't really believe that. But it sure hasn't lessened her onstage energy. That was a monster sacre that took the stage Saturday, all the more astonishing for coming on so simply, wearing just black tights and a white blouse, lugging her own stool.

I remembered the show's many highlights, but I'd forgotten how packed it is with memories, stories and names. You could almost accuse her of name-dropping, but if so, it's name-dropping raised to a higher power, because every famous name comes with a full-fledged anecdote or triggers remembrance of a whole slice of her eventful life in show biz.

Her favorite device is to use a famous song, like her opening, "There's No Business Like Show Business," as the framework for extensive reminiscence. There are several more of these set pieces -- "A Talent to Amuse," "I'm Still Here," "It's the Little Things You Do Together" and her show-stopping (no, more than that, a show in itself) "The Ladies Who Lunch."

The show is well-written and packed with detail, nothing slapdash or random about it, as the collaboration of writer John Lahr insures. At just over 2½ hours, it gives more than full value. (For fuller detail, you can read my original Broadway review here.)

Stritch was accompanied by music director Rob Bowman on piano with a five-man combo, locally recruited, that I could almost call an orchestra, it had that full a sound. The lighting was especially good.

In person, Stritch is known to be an acerbic, demanding handful. You may remember her pugnacious Tony Award appearance in 2002. (I was there, in the press room: you can read my account here.) And I've been hearing stories about how brusque she was on this visit.

But on stage, she deserves all the adulation she gets. For many years, my rule about standing ovations has been, "only for Laurence Olivier or Ted Williams, and both are dead."

I stood for Stritch.


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