Streisand opens her new tour at the Wells Fargo

Barbra Streisand's voice is smaller, at 70, but her way with a lyric remains her strong suit. And her life experience transforms even the chestnuts. Visibly, she hasn't aged much, and she was at ease bantering with the audience.
Barbra Streisand's voice is smaller, at 70, but her way with a lyric remains her strong suit. And her life experience transforms even the chestnuts. Visibly, she hasn't aged much, and she was at ease bantering with the audience. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: October 10, 2012

After a few quiet years, Barbra Streisand is once again about to engulf the world - in some of the best ways.

Whether because she has turned 70, seeks visibility to support Democrats in an election year, or is just plain restless, Streisand has returned. She opened her new Back to Brooklyn 12-city concert tour at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday, released her new album, Release Me, on Tuesday, will be back in movie theaters this fall with a film titled The Guilt Trip, and is the subject of a dishy new William J. Mann biography, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, out this week.

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. The composite impression is that Streisand is endearingly real, but such a historical relic, you're surprised that she does anything other than collect honorary degrees.

But the relic performed a three-hour show with guest appearances by trumpeter Chris Botti, the Italian pop-opera trio Il Volo, and her son Jason Gould - yes, the guy in her film The Prince of Tides, who is also a cultivated singer with a Sarah Vaughan-esque way of exploring the harmonic implications of any given tune.

With the oomph of her 60-piece orchestra, she cherry-picked the best of the Great American Songbook, such as Irving Berlin's "What'll 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 Youth Choir. Streisand 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, her life experience 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 inspired duet she sang with her son 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.

Streisand herself hasn't visibly aged by much, her hair long and blond, her gowns flowing (with cleavage showing). And while wearing a black, glittery number, she made homey jokes about the discomfort of sitting on sequins - evidence of how much her concert manner has thawed since she resumed touring in the mid-1990s. Now, she's so personable that you almost feel like you're visiting her backstage. 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.

During 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, www.barbrastreisand.com), 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 loved it.

The Back to Brooklyn theme manifested itself in a number of ways. A documentary film of her old Brooklyn friends 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 dreamlike 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.

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 $92 million. On this tour, a handful of special seats with promises of a backstage visit (though not necessarily a photo op) are being auctioned, the one for her Las Vegas date being up to $4,000. (As in her 2006 tour, program books were a hefty $40 - at least there was no inflation.)

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 delivered a stinging correction to playwright Larry Kramer's less-than-accurate account of her efforts to make his play, The Normal Heart, into a movie. Her famous long fingernails aren't merely decorative.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.


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