Elaine Stritch At Liberty
Not everyone will like Elaine Stritch At Liberty. The fact is, this show has little to offer casual theatregoers. If you're the sort of person who attends one musical a year, this really shouldn't be it. You'd feel out of place with the theatrical references and jokes. But if you appreciate theatre and want to hear some tales from someone who's been there, if you want to see a great old-time theatre broad tell you her side of the story, if you consider yourself - in any way, shape or form - a "theatre person," then get yourself down to the Ahmanson to see the show that prompted the Tony speech you never got to hear.
Stritch opens her one-person show with "There's No Business Like Show Business," interspersing relevant anecdotes after every line of the song's introduction. And that's pretty much what you're in for - nearly three hours of Stritch's biography, sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, always brilliantly theatrical - punctuated with songs. Stritch's comic timing is perfectly intact, and she can wring a laugh out of even the most unlikely scenario. The evening isn't simply theatrical stories; Stritch's tales also get intimately personal, beginning with her childhood, and eventually encompassing her drinking and diabetes. Stritch is not afraid to share these stories and fully explore their effects on her life. But, whenever the show risks getting too dark, Stritch's comic sense takes over. She pauses, throws out a zinger, and is off and running in a different direction.
The show's songs are of two types; some are songs she previously performed on stage, others are songs that simply fit the thematic moods of her biography. Stritch's vocal delivery isn't as crisp as it could be. Sometimes words get garbled, and occasionally they get drowned out by the orchestra or the appreciative audience. But you don't go to At Liberty to hear theatrical songs sung with delicate beauty or vocal pyrotechnics; you go to hear Elaine Stritch sing these songs with her soul. Stritch's version of Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" is extraordinary. It comes at the top of the second act, when Stritch has told us just enough of her life story for us to understand she's earned the right to sing it. Later in the act, she performs "The Ladies Who Lunch," which is something of a signature piece. The problem is, she performs "Ladies Who Lunch," as though to say "This is my big number," whereas she sings "I'm Still Here" because she genuinely means it. Hearing Stritch sing "Ladies Who Lunch" is something every good theatre person wants to say they've done, but hearing her sing "I'm Still Here" is something they'll remember forever.
There's not much else to say. If you follow theatre enough to have even the vaguest idea of who Elaine Stritch is, you've probably already bought tickets. If you don't, the show probably isn't for you anyway. If you're lucky enough to be the theatre-lover this show is meant for, At Liberty is a tremendous theatrical experience - a peek behind the curtain at Stritch's life, combined with some stunning performance moments.
Elaine Stritch At Liberty continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 27, 2003. http://www.taperahmanson.com or (213) 628-2772.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; CreativeBattery in association with John Schreiber presents Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Constructed by John Lahr; Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch. Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell; Sound Design by Acme Sound Partners; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer; Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; Music Direction by Rob Bowman; Music Coordination by Seymour Red Press; Production Stage Manager Larry Baker; Technical Supervisor Fred Allen; Marketing TMG The Marketing Group; General Management Columbia Artists Theatricals; Producer Bruce H. Weinstein; Executive Producer Scott Sanders. Directed by George C. Wolfe.
Photo by Denise Richards