Much of it comes together at the concert. The biography, the album (which consists of outtakes from past recordings) and the concert's opening photo montage of her Brooklyn roots all look back at what made Streisand who she is today, even if the book does so in less-than-flattering detail. Ultimately, though, the impression left by it all is of a Streisand who is endearingly real, but such a historical relic, you're surprised that she does anything other than collecting honorary degrees.
Instead, the relic performed a three-hour show with guest appearances by trumpeter Chris Botti, the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and her son Jason Gould - yes, the guy who was in her film The Prince of Tides, but turns out to be a singer whose dizzying upper range allows him to do the Josh Groban thing with a more interesting edge than Josh Groban. She also sang a medley from the musical Gypsy, which is said to be her next film project, in which she'll play the King Lear of Broadway roles, Mama Rose.
One can't expect Streisand's voice to be what it used to be. Though she still wraps her cords around "Don't Rain on My Parade" and spins out the high notes of "The Way We Were," the voice is smaller, a little leathery, and tires more easily, perhaps reflecting the remnants of a cold she had during her Friday dress rehearsal at Temple University's Liacouras Center (where she sang for an invited audience of 500 after rehearsing there for close to two weeks).
But the voice isn't everything with Streisand - and never was. Her iconoclastic lyric readings and the style needed to fully project them have long been her hallmark. Now, the life experience she brings to her singing transforms even her most tired chestnuts. Sung as a tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch (her longtime friend and sometimes music director), "The Way We Were" had depths that leave her standard recorded version in the dust. The hugely inspired duet she sang with her son (who, by the way, has no problem holding the stage with Barbra Streisand) clearly informed the way she subsequently handled "People," with a subtext that made her vocal fatigue less noticeable, and, more impressively, disguised how badly the song itself has aged.
Since she began touring again in the mid-1990s, Streisand's concert manner has progressively thawed. Now, she's so personable that you almost feel like you're visiting her backstage. She seems more comfortable receiving adulation. Her banter with the audience has grown into the kind of reckless spontaneity of Judy Garland's best concert years. In fact, one of Streisand's biggest ovations came from exactly the sort of political moment she sought to avoid this time around.
In her 2006 tour, some fans rebelled against the intensely political Streisand having a comic George W. Bush impersonator as a guest. On Monday, Streisand (still a raging Democrat on her website) fielded an audience question asking what she thought about Mitt Romney's threat to fire Big Bird. To which she blurted out, "I hope nobody shows him the way to Sesame Street - or Pennsylvania Avenue." The audience went nuts.
The Back to Brooklyn theme manifested itself in a number of ways. A documentary film of her old Brooklyn friend and classmates was shown. She sang a version of Cole Porter's "You're the Top" with new lyrics about Brooklyn landmarks and, more reflectively, sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from the Broadway show Sunset Boulevard with nice new lyrics from Jay Landers and Charlie Midnight suggesting a dream-like visit to her old neighborhood. It couldn't have been lovelier. Somewhere around Hour Two, I realized my face was tired from smiling so much.
Maybe her singing didn't knock you out, but you had to love the pleasure of her company, the oomph of her 60-piece orchestra and her superb taste in songs. She cherry-picked the best of the Great American Songbook, such as Irving Berlin's "What Will I Do?" and "How Deep is the Ocean?" (the duet with her son). She ended with a homily on taking care of the planet, followed by Leonard Bernstein's "Make Our Garden Grow" with the Brooklyn choir. Her encore was more Bernstein, the wistful "Some Other Time."
Is this the last tour? She said that she learned "never say never," and separately, added that she'd sing as long as she could. And the money - which goes to her various charitable foundations - ain't bad either. The last tour grossed an estimated $90 million. In this tour, a handful of special seats with promises of a backstage visitation (though not necessarily a photo op) are being auctioned, the one for her Las Vegas date being up to $4,000. Visibility equals power, and Streisand clearly wants to influence the world's ideals (as seen on her website). But lest we think she's turning into Mahatma Gandhi, she gave a verbal right hook to playwright Larry Kramer for giving a less-than-accurate account of her longtime efforts to make his play, The Normal Heart, into a movie. Her famous long fingernails aren't merely decorative.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.