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A CurtainUp Triple Review
Elaine Stritch At Liberty
From Off-Broadway, to Broadway, to London

Stritch Goes to London
At Liberty and the lady herself transferred intact to London's Old Vic Theatre. In two centuries many of Britain's greatest actors and actresses have stood nervously in the wings of this great theatre, waiting for their cue. Elaine Stritch strides out in white shirt and black tights like she owns the place, which she does for the next two and a half hours. If she's nervous you would never know: after all, this is her life.

This cleverly crafted show reviewed during its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs by Elyse Sommer and Les Gutman (see below) so I don't need to tell you what to expect. Script, music, lighting, and direction unite to lift Elaine up where she belongs, but once she's there you better believe that this is a one-woman show. (Though perhaps her silent partner, who provides such solid support throughout the evening, doesn't get the credit it deserves: one cheer for the prop stool!)

What does the London crowd make of Elaine? The Old Vic is full and many of the audience are young people who probably haven't seen Elaine in 1988's Cocoon: the Return, let alone 1957's A Farewell to Arms. Some of the stars she talks about -- Gig Young, Ethel Merman, the Lunts -- can mean little to a young London crowd, though everyone can see the irony of turning down one eligible suitor in the hope of wedded bliss with Rock Hudson. No, what hooks the crowd and keeps it hooked is the performance of this septuagenarian hoofer who is "Still Here", a woman who sacrificed the common joys of life to be a performer. Although, as she ruefully admits, Elaine sacrificed quite a lot to the bottle as well. She has regrets, and not just a few. But performing right here and now before us is what she is: An Existential Problem in Tights. Spiralling downwards, perhaps, but with incredible style.Does London love Elaine? You bet! Can't you hear the applause?

Reviewed by Brian Clover on Thursday 10th October 2002 at The Old Vic, where its booking until 30th November 2002 -- extended to 14th December (Box Office 020 7369 1722)

Elaine Stritch At Liberty Moves to Broadway
In music, there is a concept called "perfect pitch". It may go far in explaining why Elaine Stritch At Liberty sings, as it does.

Seeing Ms. Stritch sustain her off-Broadway triumph (rarely has a show garnered such universally ecstatic critical response as this one did in the original Public Theater staging -- Elyse Sommer's CurtainUp review follows below), one starts to wonder what it is that differentiates it from the umpteen other autobiographical evenings of theater that fare less well. The simple answer is that it brings together impeccable collaborators -- not only the unmistakable personality of its star but also a director (George Wolfe) with the craftsmanship of a jewelmaker, a "script constructor" (John Lahr) possessing a keen sense of how to express a life in words, an orchestrator (Jonathan Tunick) of unexceeded talent and designers who know how to package with delicacy.

But the key to understanding what makes the show great is given away by Ms. Stritch herself: "You've got to be real to be funny," she tells us, early on. You've got to be real, period, and she is. As we watch her onstage, carrying around her own and only prop, an overweight bar chair, in a costume that reminds us more of Tom Cruise in Risky Business than anything we expect on one of the grandest of theater's grand dames, we see not some over-packaged, over-processed creation, but instead just the Michigan girl who has always remained her own tough as nails self. Even if she will be always identified with Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch," she is the personification of "I'm Still Here". (She sings both.) And none of us will ever again drive up the Merritt Parkway to Connecticut without thinking of her daily shuttle as she stood by for Merman in Call Me Madam while starring in a pre-Broadway revival of Pal Joey. It's not just a good story (the stuff of legends), but revelatory.

So yes, Elaine Stritch At Liberty is every bit as much the must-see on Broadway as it was on Lafayette Street. And you'll honestly be missing something if you fail to catch this towering achievement during its short run. ---Les Gutman

Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. (8th/7th Avs) (212) 307-4100.
to 5/26/02; official re-opening 2/21/02.
Wednesday - Saturday @8PM Sundays @5PM -- $20-$85. (See below for remaining credits and other information.

Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here

--- Opening of "I'm Still Here", one of several Stephen Sondheim songs serving as musical punctuation marks for Elaine Stritch's memoir.
Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch (Photo: Michael Daniel)
I recall reading an article some years ago about the invisibility and sexlessness of women once they pass fifty. Whoever expounded this theory ought to be taken immediately to the Newman Theater to see the sexiest and most vibrant lady in town, seventy-six-years-young Elaine Stritch. The great legs that carried her from Michigan to Manhattan still exude what the lunching ladies she so memorably sings about would call "oomph."

I won't try to pin down Elaine Stritch: At Liberty into a theatrical genre. The story of her life on and off stage has all the drama of a play. The anecdotes she strings together are spiced with enough humor and songs delivered in her distinctive style to qualify as a comedy or revue. Theatrical memoir illustrated with songs. . . one-woman show. . . call it what you will, but one thing is certain: Ms. Stritch's two and a half-hour solo is an event that will come as long overdue to her many fans and make fans out of many who recognize her name and distinctive gravelly voice but don't really know much about her. (The face and voice recognition factor may make you search your mind for what show won her a Tony. The truth according to Elaine: " I have a terrific acceptance speech. . . I've had it for forty-five years").

The show begins with the orchestra playing Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business", the red velvet curtain opening and Stritch entering and immediately inhabiting the stage. No costume changes, just black tights, high heels to accentuate the shapely gams and a simple white shirt (according to her own self-deprecating comment, "an existential problem in tights"). No props either, except for a stool and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's subtle lighting. John Lahr's artfully constructed script (reconstructed by Stritch) melds personal with show-related anecdotes and songs into a portrait of a woman who is not afraid to lay bare her soul. George C. Wolfe's direction is so unintrusive that the show has the spontaneous feel of a gathering for a large group of friends and well-wishers.

Two and a half hours may seem a long stretch for a solo show, but Ms. Stritch has a lot of living, loving and regrets to unpack and comment on: her middle class childhood in Detroit. . .  the student days at the New School with such classmates as Marlon Brando (whose charms didn't prevent the girl, whose first Manhattan home was a convent, from remaining a virgin until age thirty). . . her hits and misses in dramatic and musical roles. . .  her romantic misadventures and the one too short but ecstatically happy marriage. . . the ongoing battle with booze that leads to the rueful explanation of what this show means to her: "I think I'm reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn't all there for" or, paraphrasing Beckett, "It almost all happened without me."

Ms. Stritch is a splendid story teller and master of the pause that signals a big laugh. One extended anecdote takes us back to her hilariously and exhaustingly juggling her role as Ethel Merman's understudy in the Broadway run of Call Me Madam with appearances in the Hartford tryouts of Rodgers' and Hart's Pal Joey. She sums up that experience with a wry "Is it any wonder I drank?" An amusing life-imitating-art account of her short-lived participation in a road company of The Women gives Stritch the last word about some of the best-known actresses of that production.

The program's song list includes more than she could possibly perform, but hints at possible variations from performance to performance. It's nice to hear some less familiar and forgotten numbers like "Civilization" ("Bongo, bongo, bongo/I don't wanna leave the Congo/Oh No, no, no, no/Bingle bangle bungle/I'm so happy in the jungle/I refuse to go") and "Why Do the Wrong People Travel" the tune that sailed high in Noêl Coward's otherwise troubled Sail Away. And yes, there is the quintessential Stritch song, The Ladies Who Lunch from her long run in Sondheim's Company.

It's hard to pinpoint John Lahr's helping hand as script writer (or as the program would have it, constructor) but then that's how collaborative efforts are supposed to work. Regardless of who wrote what, Elaine Stritch delivers the lines with impeccable timing. That includes knowing exactly when to say "it's time. Good Night." so that the audience can rise and shout "Good Show!"

Elaine Stritch at Liberty
Constructed by John Lahr and reconstructed by Elaine Stritch
Directed by George C. Wolf

Cast: Elaine Stritch
Set Design: Riccardo Hernández
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell,
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Music direction: Rob Bowman
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including one intermission
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.; or 212-239-6200.
10/26/01-11/25/01--extended to 12/30/01-- and again to 1/06/02 -- and then on to Broadway; opening 11/07/01
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m-- $45. Quick Tix, discounted Rush tickets if available, half hour before curtain time.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 2nd performance
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