NEW YORK - The audience was full of stars. The fans were full of emotion. The set was full of big hits and the stage was full of jaw-dropping special effects. It was, in short, the ultimate Barbra Streisand show.
Well, the penultimate show, anyway. Streisand opened the New York leg of her farewell tour at Madison Square Garden last night, playing the first of two shows - her two last shows - to a packed and enthusiastic crowd, all of whom seemed thrilled to be part of such an historical event.
For her own part, Streisand was quite clear about precisely what kind of "goodbye" these concerts were. "I'm not retiring," she said toward the end of the show. "I'll still be making movies and doing other projects." What she won't be doing is performing live, and to that end these shows were both a summation of her career, and a thank-you to her fans - one that stressed nearly all the expected favorites. From a sentimental rendition of "The Way We Were" early on in the show, to a heartfelt, show-closing "People," Streisand offered pretty much every big hit a fan could want.
That was especially true of the New York shows. When it was announced she would be giving farewell concerts in Los Angeles and New York, Streisand's manager explained that the cities were chosen because of their significance to the singer. But even though L.A. is where she lives, the Big Apple is home, and last night's show was a homecoming in more ways than one. She was forever waving and saying "Hi!" to her cousins and other relatives in the audience, and when she got to the part of the show in which she reads part of a letter her father had written to his high-school girlfriend, Streisand mentioned that the "girlfriend" was actually in the audience.
"Her name's Esther Grodin," she said, pointing to her. "Ninety-two years old. My father's girlfriend!"
Grodin may have been the most unlikely celebrity in the audience, but she was hardly the only one Streisand mentioned from the stage. Toward the end of the second set, she pointed out famous personage after famous personage, starting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and proceeding through everyone from Tony Bennett and Bernadette Peters to Penny Marshall and Donna Karan.
Not that she needed to, as the star-struck crowd had been scanning the seats for recognizable faces right up to show time. As "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker sashayed into the arena, elbows nudged and flashbulbs popped. "Look how blond she is!" marveled one spectator. And when talk show host Rosie O'Donnell was spotted, boisterous fans in the cheaper seats chanted "Ro-sie! Ro-sie!"
Still, as much as the others may have added to the spectacle, there was no mistaking who the real star of this show was. Streisand calls this show "Timeless" - it's largely the same songs and staging found on her current album, which she recorded New Year's Eve at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas - but a more appropriate moniker would be "This Is Your Life," because it serves up an encapsulated version of the singer's career.
It starts, as expected, in New York, where a young Streisand (played with astonishing accuracy and coltish charm by Lauren Frost) is making her first recording, an amusing tableaux that ends with today's Streisand singing "Something's Coming" in duet with her youthful doppelganger. From there, it follows her through her days as a nightclub singer to her first success on Broadway, and then into songs from her various films.
As a musical overview, it was spotty to say the least. There were some songs which would be on any fan's best-ever list, from such big hits as "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)" to more artistically fulfilling fare like "A Sleepin' Bee" and "Alfie." But there were also some extremely questionable choices, such as the low-budget disco medley "The Main Event/Fight," which had even Streisand joking, "I feel like Cher."
Well, honey, if you're embarrassed, why include it?
Likewise, Streisand's vocal performance was somewhat uneven. Though "A Sleepin' Bee" was blessed with all the lustrous sonority Streisand fans expect, her tone was somewhat clotted through "Lover Come Back to Me," particularly when contrasted against the brassy arrangement. And even though she had power to spare for "That Man of Mine," her belting wasn't quite as impressive as the amount of color she worked into her wonderfully nuanced reading of "That Man of Mine."
Even so, much of the show succeeded for reasons that had little to do with musical technique. Take, for instance, the big "Yentl" medley at the end of the first act. After tugging at our heartstrings with the story about her father's old love letter, Streisand launched into "Papa Can You Hear Me?" from the movie's soundtrack. Then she went into "You'll Never Know," singing harmony as the Barbra in the movie carried the melody. Then Frost came onstage, and the overhead video screen went into a three-way split, showing cinematic Barbra, in-the-flesh Barbra and the young doppelganger all wailing away.
Was it overblown? Yep. Was it corny? You bet. Was it overkill? Absolutely. But if you could watch it without getting at least a little verklempt, call your cardiologist - because you obviously don't have a heart.
And really, isn't that why people adore Streisand so? Yes, she's got a great voice, and there were moments in this second-to-the-last show that sent shivers down the spine. But what she does even better than sing is to engage the emotions of her audience. Maybe that was why, for all the power and intelligence she poured into her rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine" (a song she introduced as being "by my good friend Harold Arlen"), there was something more satisfying about the way she sounded a little choked up through "Don't Like Goodbyes," if only because she seemed to be reflecting the same feelings those of us in audience had.
Well, nobody likes goodbyes. But if that's what this was, it would be hard to imagine how we could have asked for more.