A Stritch in time

Elaine Stritch is not content to rest on anyone’s laurels. Now in her eighties, she seems as busy as ever. Last year, she went down to New Jersey to act in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s The Full Monty; the year before that, she was at BAM, poking out of a trash can in Endgame. Meanwhile, she was reaching a mass audience (and winning an Emmy) in a recurring role as Alec Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock—and carving out a new career for herself as a cabaret performer. Reviewing her debut show at the Café Carlyle in 2005, here’s what I wrote:

“Elaine Stritch sings in a skeleton key that somehow unlocks every song. Her corrosive, curmudgeonly voice, pickled through decades in the business called show, is slim in range and unsteady in pitch. But if her singing lacks loveliness, it explodes with a rare and precious force of unique character—that tough yet tender Stritchian blend of honesty and mordant wit. Making her solo cabaret debut at the age of 80, she wears a puffy white blouse and black vest, like a schoolgirl’s uniform, with lean, black-stockinged legs protruding from below; in this iconic get-up—convent girl on top, Broadway lifer below—she suggests a hybrid out of Greek myth, like a mermaid or the Sphinx. Equal parts blond bombshell and battle-ax, Stritch is a legend, and she knows it.”

The same applies, more or less, to Stritch’s newest Carlyle show, a tribute to the music and lyrics of the great Stephen Sondheim. (Sondheim turns 80 this year, and this is the first of many tributes.) Yes, she has softened a bit: The outfit is less stark, and the style more sentimental and nostalgic. Her voice, and her manner, are quieter. But a sardonic showbiz toughness lurks around every corner of her delivery, and this turns out to be an ideal complement to the mind-wringing self-dissection of many of Sondheim’s greatest songs. In addition to the two songs that she already owns—Company’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “The Little Things You Do Together”—she performs a dozen or so numbers, ranging from early rarities (such as “Love Is in the Air,” the original opening number from 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to the most recent of Sondheim’s work (Road Show’s “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”), with major stops in between for “Send in the Clowns” and “Rose’s Turn,” among others. She and the material are a beautiful match: Stritch plays horse to Sondheim’s carriage.

This show plays through February 2, and it doesn't come cheap: Seats are $125 (premium $175), not counting a mandatory dinner. But Broadway shows cost just as much, and most deliver far less at a greater distance. Think of it as a musical-theater therapy session with the best interpreter in town. It’s worth every dollar.

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