BWW Reviews: Elaine Stritch Sings All-Sondheim Show at Walt Disney Concert Hall
About two-thirds into Elaine Stritch's hilarious, anecdote-heavy Sondheim tribute concert ELAINE STRITCH: SINGIN' SONDHEIM...ONE SONG AT A TIME at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 19, this treasured dame of the Broadway stage barked out a stern warning about the big—though fabulously mesmerizing—elephant in the room: "If there is any critic out there that says I kept forgetting things all night, I'm going to kill them!"
Well, I beg your pardon, Ms. Stritch, but as one of these said critics in attendance, I for one have no problem admitting—at the risk of ending my life—that I adored every missed lyric, every forgotten transition, and every single off-book tangent you took us to in this concert. Frankly, all that forgetfulness made the entire show all the more endearing and special.
Luckily, for the still-spunky 87-year-old Tony and Emmy Award winner, her musical director and principal accompanist Rob Bowman was ever alert and at the ready just a stone's throw behind her. All evening, he fed her lyrics she missed, slowed down—then started back up—the terrific ad-hoc band, and tossed out gentle reminders that guided her back onto her own memory lane.
It was a back-and-forth exchange that felt natural yet completely spontaneous, which, funny enough, with the unpredictable Ms. Stritch is quite a treat for those able to watch this enjoyable one-night-only concert. It helps, too, to know that Stephen Sondheim himself gave his blessing for her to do this—even suggesting that because he won't be in attendance, that she "can ad-lib" as much as she wanted. Done and done.
Understandably, the rapt audience was no doubt hungry for such a rare left-coast appearance by Ms. Stritch. The last time she performed live in town, if I can correctly recall, was back during the sold-out L.A. transfer of her superb Tony-winning one-woman-show Elaine Stritch at Liberty at the Ahmanson Theatre, directly across the street from the concert hall—which, in a bit of kismet, is currently playing host to the direct L.A. transfer of Sondheim's incredible Broadway revival of FOLLIES.
Met with well-deserved, boisterous standing ovations both at the start and at the end of the intermission-less program, Stritch was in usual top form, dispensing out acerbic comments and witty barbs about her life, her career, and her love and admiration—both personally and professionally—for Sondheim.
"He scares me to death," she declared, perhaps slightly exaggerating. "But I'm not complaining. I'm just bragging!"
Dressed in her signature lily-white shirt and black stockings combo (as seen in her publicity photo, next page), Ms. Stritch traversed through the Sondheim Songbook with a fascinating real-life anecdote for each song—and taking several droll forks along the way.
Combining Stritch and Sondheim, of course, isn't such a shocking marriage of creative endeavors coming together. After all, to this day Stritch's iconic original rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Sondheim's COMPANY—which she performed brilliantly this evening, naturally—is the stuff of musical theater legends (and many a parody or two). And more recently, Stritch made a welcome return to Broadway opposite Bernadette Peters in the celebrated revival of the composer's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which, as it turns out, was the first Sondheim musical she ever saw on Broadway with her husband way back during its original run.
Her roster of Sondheim selections leaned more toward joyful ditties than to the serious ones, borne out of her admiration for the composer's innate sense of humor. She started the program with "I Feel Pretty" (from WEST SIDE STORY) because, in her own words, just "screams me," she deadpanned. She also gamely took on "Rose's Turn" from GYPSY—twice!
"I couldn't go home..." she protested, demanding that the band start over, "unless I got these lyrics down!" She repeated this call for do-overs a few times on several songs during the night—and by golly, are we the better for it!
What else made the whole audience smile and bust out in laughter? Aside from Ms. Stritch's profanity-laced, stream-of-consciousness tangents, her darling reminiscences of her husband, and her amusing struggle with a very heavy bar stool, it was also her palpable who-the-eff-cares attitude—reminding all in attendance of her legendary status and why we all should, damn it, wait for her to finish. These cute non-scripted flubs allowed for an open-ended, free-flowing concert atmosphere that felt like it was all done somewhat on the fly (I'm going to make an educated guess and say that the concert's running time probably went longer than they had anticipated).
Though she admitted that she was "so nervous" because she was "getting up there," her wicked charm and her animated performances worked wonders with this night's already adoring, can't-disappoint crowd. And what's not to love about Ms. Stritch's own spin on "Everybody Says Don't," "Love Is In The Air," "It's the Little Things You Do Together," and a spirited, va-va-va-voom "Broadway Baby" from FOLLIES—a show, she admitted, she absolutely loved. One of her funnier recollections is when she spoke of wanting to sing "Broadway Baby" in FOLLIES, but was told by Sondheim that she may be too young (at the time) to sing it... though he was audaciously suggested she should sing the still-alive-and-kicking anthem "I'm Still Here," which she found slightly offensive given she was only 30 years old at the time. (Ms. Stritch has been known to later sing this song as part of her repertoire, but she curiously decided against it for this concert).
She also spoke of her incredible relationship with New York City and, particularly, the Carlyle Hotel—which so happens was the site of her first solo cabaret and for years has also been her own residence. This spurned a touching rendition of "Send In The Clowns" she dedicated to her husband. And in one of the night's most stirring, moving moments, Ms. Stritch did "Every Day A Little Death" as a powerfully gutsy spoken word homage to jazz great Lester Young. The room was so eerily quiet during the monologue you could hear a pin drop.
But, as she later admitted quite matter-of-factly—in the way only legends like her can get away with—she offered an admission that "all this talk of Sondheim [in between] is just bulls--t... I'm just trying to figure out what the next song is." Ha!
What truly made SINGIN' SONDHEIM...ONE SONG AT A TIME such a euphoric concert at such a gorgeous venue (which she labeled "the classier part of Mickey Mouse") is that one could tell from the age-defiant Ms. Stritch that she was still loving every second of being a veteran performer. It was so wonderful to watch her not only sing—and speak of—these jaw-droppingly good tunes, but to also revel along with her in the sheer joy of seeing her perform these tunes her way.
She, of course, said it best towards the show's conclusion: "Stick around long enough and you can do it all! At my age, it's great to be free to express myself and to sing these songs!"
I, for one, felt honored and quite privileged to have been there to witness it.
Photos courtesy of LAPhil. Top photo by Nathalie Vande Walle. Middle photo by Denise Winters.
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For more information of about other shows at the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Hollywood Bowl, visit LAPhil.com.