Elaine Stritch at Liberty Constructed by John Lahr. Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume Design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Music Direction by Rob Bowman.
Frugal theatergoers take note: Elaine Stritch At Liberty has arrived at the Neil Simon Theatre, and there is simply no bigger or better bang for your buck on Broadway.
Where else in town can you find someone that call sell a song like Ms. Stritch does? The boundless charisma and determination she displays in putting over numbers like "Zip," "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and "I'm Still Here" carries such force, you can almost hear every Broadway star wannabe sit up and say, "So that's how it should be done."
As an added benefit, you also get to experience the song she introduced in the 1947 revue Angel in the Wings that first made her star shine so brightly (it's called "Civilization"), as well as the Stephen Sondheim classic, "The Ladies Who Lunch," on the stage she first introduced it over thirty years ago. Of course, these unfailingly memorable moments are merely the icing on an already marvelously decadent cake. Rest assured, though, that Elaine Stritch At Liberty is far more than empty calories.
Above all, there's a powerful show here. Constructed by John Lahr - Ms. Stritch herself receives credit for "script reconstruction" - and directed by George C. Wolfe, the play itself seems as complete and fulfilling dramatically as any other currently on Broadway. The story follows Ms. Stritch from her Michigan upbringing to eventual Broadway stardom with all the promise and the pitfalls that lay in between. There are profoundly moving moments, there are humorous sidelines, there are unexpected plot twists, and a lot more... Whatever you most expect in a play, you'll find here.
The show is so tightly constructed, in fact, that even though the story is peppered with humorous and often insightful anecdotes about such personalities as Marlon Brando, Noel Coward, Ethel Merman, and Judy Garland, their inclusion never feels like gratuitous name-dropping. Stritch always makes you aware that she worked with these people and saw another side of them, and the show succeeds at painting them as characters as vibrant (and frequently as real) as the one she herself is playing.
Whatever the show is presenting, it remains highly entertaining, engrossing, and forthright. But how could it not be with Stritch at its center? When she appears onstage for the first time carrying a chair, before beginning her story (with a most appropriate song, "There's No Business Like Show Business"), you know she's taking what she does seriously, and as becomes clear almost immediately, she always has. She's tough and to be reckoned with - you'll know that before too long as well.
Perhaps the most important thing you'll learn about Stritch during the course of the evening is what she'll come never come right out and say: She isn't capable of hiding much of herself onstage As she relates the story of the death of her husband, or of her painful relationship (and break up) with alcohol, you can see the tears form in her eyes and voice, but her joy is also yours at mastering a difficult lyric or winning the approval of Noel Coward. She may be playing her own life, but she does what any good actor must, and brings you into the scene with her, making everything she says as real and relevant to you as it must have been to her.
Dressed in a simple white shirt and black leggings by Paul Tazewell, and standing in front of a simple set (the work of Riccardo Hernandez) representing the backstage world so appropriate for her, she may threaten to disappear altogether. But even when the show dwells too much on her inner pain, the essential magic of Elaine Stritch At Liberty shines through, bringing a lofty overwhelming presence down to earth. But once the nine-piece band, led by Rob Bowman, and playing the music (with superbly zesty orchestrations by the great Jonathan Tunick) lets loose and Stritch opens her mouth to pierce through it with that one-of-a-kind voice, she is, once again, deliciously larger than life.
A good thing, too, for the audiences at the Neil Simon; when the show was playing its sold-out run at the Public Theater late last year, Ms. Stritch threatened to burst the walls apart with her sheer theatrical force. But rest assured the show has lost nothing in the move uptown, and has, in reality, gained quite a bit. Stritch fills out every inch of the stage and owns the house and audience from the get go.
Broadway is where she belongs, and it shows. It's her home, and let's all hope she remains where she belongs for many more years to come.