‘The Big Bang Theory’ starts off its 10th season with a smallish pop

A smattering of family members chit chat around the couch in Penny's apartment.The Big Bang Theory opened its 10th season (!) with a wedding. Well sort of. Fans will remember that last season Penny and Leonard found out that his glacial mother Beverly (Christine Baranski) felt slighted and hurt that she wasn’t invited to their nuptials, so the gang decides to throw a commitment ceremony (something the gays used to do before we could get married) and invite the families to gather and be awkward with each other. And the result was a mildly amusing, though somewhat sleepy season opener.

One of the show’s highlights has been guest stars, and usually the show treats its guest stars well. This week’s episode – “The Conjugal Conjecture” – reveals that while TBBT vets like Baranski and Laurie Metcalf (who’s back as Sheldon’s mom Mary) are aces, newbies like Katey Sagal and Jack McBrayer fit badly in the fictional universe, which is a damn shame because both Sagal and McBrayer are talented performers and great comedic actors who deserve better than their thinly-written characters.

But more on that later. The episode’s A story has Penny (Kaley Cuoco)  and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) renewing their wedding vows so that their families and friends can witness their love. It’s a sweet gesture, that somehow feels cheated and short-shifted in the episode, that is far more interested in giving us a show of warring bickering families. Leonard’s divorced parents, Beverly and Alfred (Judd Hirsch) are pissed at each other because Alfred possibly has a thing for the Bible-thumping Mary, who is the antithesis of the scholastic Beverly.

But Leonard isn’t the only one dealing with family problems. In a far less interesting plot line, Penny’s family comes to visit, and her mom Susan (Sagal – who played Kaley Cuoco’s mom on the forgotten ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules) is super uptight because brother Randall (McBrayer) has just gotten out of the pokey for producing and selling meth. It’s a dark detail that is totally played for laughs and lands flat. Keith Carradine returns as Penny’s laidback pop Wyatt, who seems to be taking everything in stride, despite his wife’s nervous nagging.

And in the completely useless b-plot with Howard, Raj, and Bernadette (Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and Melissa Rauch, respectively) have a mini adventure that centers on an Air Force colonel trying to contact Howard for some unknown and unexplained reason, and the episode’s writers – don’t do a good enough job in raising the stakes high enough to make viewers care.

Part of the problem with the show – a problem that is shared by ABC’s Modern Family – is that the show has far too big a cast and not enough time to give each character enough space. And because we’re trying to get everyone a chance at bat, some characters – like Mayim Bialik’s Amy barely register (a waste, because she’s always reliable for a good laugh). I forgot Stuart (Kevin Sussman) was still a character, except he popped up to hammer home his nebbish pathetic persona (I remember when we first met Stuart, he wasn’t as bad as this).

In the twenty minutes or so that the show has to tell its story, everything feels rushed and forced. The family squabbles are simply sitcommy fights, peppered with decent one liners that are launched with the custom broad hammy acting that’s befitting a multi-cam sitcom. There is very little in terms of exploration into why the characters are so fraught and tense – Randall’s stint in jail could be explored for some interesting insight into Penny’s own addictive behavior, and Susan’s constant attempts at scrubbing away at the family’s imperfections could be a sign of larger issues at hand. But we don’t get any of that. And Sagal and McBrayer are totally wasted in these roles. Sagal, especially, is prim and tight, and doesn’t get much laughs. And McBrayer’s character is basically a charmless version of 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell.

But despite the mediocrity of the opener, there were still some bright moments to be found. Laurie Metcalf is a comedic genius, as is Christine Baranski, and I’d love to see the two join the cast, and we can jettisone the neglected Stuart and Emily (Laura Spencer). Though Mary and Beverly are completely one-note (Beverly more so), the actresses do so much with even the hackiest lines. And Jim Parsons does have a touching moment near the end, in which he shares his love for Leonard and Penny at the wedding. It’s a brief glimpse into the potential the show constantly exhibits – there are always these quick moments throughout the show’s 10 years, in which genuine growth and development occurs – this is especially true with Sheldon who, in the first season, wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of his friends to express his innermost feelings.

Ten years is a long time for a show to be on, and The Big Bang Theory is frayed at this point. The show has accommodated for its growing cast by marginalizing some of the characters – this is especially true in the way Penny morphed from the hot, kooky girl next door, to the colorless straight man of the bunch. Her character is solely defined by her relationships, whether it’s with Leonard, Sheldon, or Amy and Bernadette. In this episode, little has changed. She takes a backseat to her warring family (which is sad, considering how dull they are), and then she’s practically background noise for her friends. There was some promise when the writers decided to have her character leave acting, which brought some interesting conflict in her relationship with Leonard, but even that detail did not live up to its potential. Hopefully the writers will try and perk up  her character a little bit, given that this could be the final season of the show (it’s still a monster hit – opening with 16 million viewers – but at 10 years, the cast must be crazy expensive at this point).

 

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Miranda Sings offers a fun – and empowering – evening

YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger has taken her now-iconic alter ego, Miranda Sings, on the road, in a fantastic and often-empowering show that highlights comedy as well as some sneaky progressive politics. Performing at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL, Ballinger has done a great job in transferring her creation from the short, five-minute videos she posts on YouTube, to a fleshed-out, 9o-minute show. The performance was a great showcase for Ballinger’s many talents, including a beautiful singing voice, but more importantly, her sharp wit and comedic vision.

The show starts off with Ballinger performing as herself. First dancing to Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” (joined by two dancers, one being her best friend Kory DeSoto, a fellow YouTube personality), then belting “Gay Best Friend” a reworking of a Frozen number that she sang with DeSoto, the strongest moment came when Ballinger brought out her ukulele to warble a neat little ditty that slammed all of the hate comments she got on her videos (some of the comments are brutal). The hate comment song is an important part of the show because it highlights much of what Ballinger – and Miranda Sings – stands for: self-empowerment. Like many performers with large tween fanbases, Ballinger does a good amount of work on anti-bullying, and making light of the horrible comments is a way for Ballinger to inspire others who may also be suffering from cyber bullying (though it has to be said, being a famous and wealthy celebrity may take some of the sting out of the meanness).

And as appealing a performer as Ballinger is, it’s her character Miranda Sings that is the real attraction for the audiences, as Ballinger has an inventive way of introducing her creation. She begins by singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, and in the middle of the song, she does a quick-change on stage, before finishing the song as Miranda Sings, smoothly segueing from Ballinger’s pretty, trained voice to Miranda’s strangled yowl.

Part of Miranda’s appeal is her self-confidence – she has a lot of it. Ballinger’s inspiration was the glut of self-deluded wannabe singers who clog up YouTube with terrible performances. But what was once merely satire has grown into an entity in itself. Miranda Sings is deluded – she cannot sing and she’s a grotesque (Ballinger slathers on an obscene amount of lipstick and twists her face into sneers, grimaces, pouts, and scowls), but she’s still the heroine of the story. While she rails against promiscuity and overt sexuality (she screeches to her audience not “to be porn!”), she’s still lustful, having her eye for her fellow YouTube star, Joey Graceffa (who is openly gay, but that minor detail doesn’t seem to dampen Miranda’s ardor).

As a major artifact and product of pop culture, Miranda also engages in pop culture. She performs medleys of radio top 40 hits with the unbridled enthusiasm of little kids in their bedrooms. When Ballinger-as-Miranda does herself up in homemade costumes to recreate various pop music scenarios, Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller comes to mind. And like Radner’s creation, Miranda becomes all the more appealing because of her musical ineptitude, which is dwarfed by her enthusiasm.

During her shows, Miranda will invite some of the screaming children on stage to perform with her. On Friday’s show, she repeated the custom, and in one sequence, when looking for a new BAE (Internet speak for boyfriend), she brought on three kids – one of whom, a wriggly little kid name Octavio, nearly stole the show with his hammy stage presence. Even when not being engaged with, he was still drawing attention with his mugging and his goofy presence. When Miranda and he were engaging in some cute comedy bits about dating, he perfecting her strange, put-upon vocal tics (it was clear that Ballinger realized she was dealing with a force).

Part of what makes Miranda Sings rather subversive is that its creator manages to sneak in her world view and progressive politics. An unabashed liberal, Ballinger threads some of her thoughts and beliefs into the show – the most explicit being a picture of Donald Trump under the headline of those who have too much confidence (the largely conservative Rosemont crowd gave a strangely muted response to that joke). She also stresses LGBT equality – both in and out of character, and her gleeful obliviousness to the haters promotes a healthy self-esteem.

As a canny, brilliant creation, Miranda Sings deserves wider appreciation. She’s got a huge following, but it’s largely niche. Hopefully that will change when Netflix premiers her sitcom Haters Back Off (her motto). When appearing with Jerry Seinfeld on his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Ballinger proved that even when paired with a comedic institution, she can more than hold her own. Because the bulk of Miranda’s audiences are tween girls, many can dismiss the character (too much of pop culture consumed by young girls is dismissed). As proven in her show, Miranda Sings is easily one of the most interesting – and funniest – creation in a while.

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Molly Shannon broadens her range in Chris Kelly’s ‘Other People’

Image resultOther People is the kind of comedy that would fit into television in today’s landscape. Our diet for funny must include huge doses of tragedy. It’s a hilarious story dealing with a woman who is dying of cancer. Screenwriter Chris Kelly, newly-minted head writer of Saturday Night Live, took his experiences of watching his mother die in 2009, and took pen to paper and wrote this affecting and hilarious dramedy about a comedian who is suffering through his mother’s long and painful death.

Kelly’s onscreen persona, David (Jesse Plemons), is a comedy writer based in New York City. His career is struggling as is his personal life. David moves back to Sacramento for a spell to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). After torturous rounds of chemo, Joanne decides to stop, letting nature take its course. The household is fraught with tragedy, tension, and comedy. David’s dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is a loving husband and father to daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madison Beaty), but is distant with his son because he’s still hung up on David’s homosexuality.

While dealing with his mom’s illness, David is also nursing the demise of his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods). Throughout the movie, David is trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. He hangs out with bestie Gabe (John Early) whose tween brother Justin (J.J. Totah) is a fabulous drag queen. He’s also trying to make shape of his career – his Comedy Central pilot failed and he’s pinning his hopes on an ABC deal.

Films like Other People can crash and burn if not handled well. Chris Kelly wisely stays clear of the bathetic lachrymose that sunk films like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment. Despite his personal stake in the story, he’s very unsentimental and unsparing when showing his viewers Joanne’s decline. As a director, he’s still a bit green. He hasn’t figured out a consistent way to blend the comedy and the tragedy – both highly pitched – in a way that feels organic. At times, he manages, but often the tonal shifts feel abrupt.

Casting a film like this is hard stuff because it’s a challenge to get funny actors who can match the demands of the script. It feels like the film’s populated by wall-to-wall comics. Even in smaller roles like family friends or coworkers, we folks like Paula Pell, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Retta, Lennon Parham, Paul Dooley, Nicole Byer, Rose Abdoo, as well as, the aforementioned Early and Woods. And lead Molly Shannon – an SNL vet – proves to be yet another, in a long list of comedians who prove to be sterling dramatic performers, too. Her trademark goofy mugging – all arms and hands splayed – is effective when Joanne is healthier and stronger, but she adapts beautifully to the more concise and contained restraints that Joanne’s decline brings – her expressive face can convey a multitude of emotions without needing a single word uttered. Plemons and Whitford match her note-for-note, but gallantly allow for Other People to remain Shannon’s show.

Kelly’s script gives up the story’s ending in the first scene. It’s a wise choice because expectations are matched, and therefore the audience isn’t waiting for a twist or a surprise ending, nor are they expecting some neat or pat resolution. Instead we’re left to focus on the relationships, namely that of David and Joanne. It’s hinted in one touching scene that his coming out wasn’t smooth, and it’s clear that Norman still cannot seem to accept having a gay son (in one sad scene, he’d rather wait outside on a dark New York street than go inside David’s apartment which he shares with Paul). Though, this isn’t a gay coming-of-age story. Instead, it’s a touching, tiny, indie dramedy that left viewers gasping for breath from laughing and crying.

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Cult Classics Revisited: ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ is a bawdy, hilarious mess

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: Series 1, 2 & 3 [Regions 2 & 4]Imagine if Will & Grace and Absolutely Fabulous had a baby: then you’d have Gimme Gimme Gimme a strange, but funny sitcom that ran for three series on BBC. Starring Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus, the show was at once extremely low brow and witty. Flouting all kinds of taboos and ideas of political correctness, Gimme Gimme Gimme was a loud, goofy, yet hilarious sitcom that deserves extra viewing.

Kathy Burke is Linda, a bespectacled gorgon of a woman who has no decent job prospects and is a stylized grotesque. What’s great about Linda is that despite her ridiculous appearance – a fright wig of bright orange hair and appalling fashion choices – she has an nearly indestructible self-confidence. She believes she’s the belle of the ball, and though a mirror would set her straight, she chooses to go through life thinking that everyone fancies her. This sort of self-delusion is important and necessary for Linda who doesn’t have much going for her.

Sharing her flat is Tom (James Dreyfus), a feckless wannabe thespian who is the epitome of the struggling actor. Despite his pretensions, his career goes no where and he plugs away either working as an extra on tawdry TV or doing odd jobs to supplement his income. Like Linda, his life is miserable by any objective measure, but he employs a similarly rock-hard deluded sense of entitlement and confidence, which lets him go through life without falling apart in misery and despair.

Like Patsy and Edina from AbFab, Tom and Linda lurch from one unseemly adventure to the next. Written by Jonathan Harvey (best known for the sensitive queer coming-of-age drama Beautiful Thing), Gimme Gimme Gimme revels in the decadent and debauched way the characters live their lives. They are both indiscriminate in their sexuality – and proudly so, eschewing respectability politics. They also do away with any sort of sense of politeness or propriety – like Donald Trump, they say the firs thing that pops in their heard, regardless of how awful or ridiculous it sounds.

As with most British sitcoms, Gimme Gimme Gimme has very short seasons – six episodes, and the plots are pretty thin. There’s some variation on Linda or Tom trying to move forward in either their careers or their social lives, but some kind of obstacle messes up their plans. Like lots of British sitcoms, there’s a strange rhythm and speed to the plots, and often the endings feel rushed, with a lack of a satisfying resolution (it’s as if  Harvey wrote and wrote the plot and then realized, “Oh shit, I need to end this, and simply wrote ‘The End'”). But that’s okay because the plots aren’t important – the show is really a chance to see Burke and Dreyfus spar with each other.

Many people have credited Will & Grace with being ground breaking and revolutionary – our vice president even credited it with the passing of marriage equality in the United States. A decade after its end makes it clear that a lot of the praise for the show is unearned. But the template – straight girl who lives with gay guy – works well with Gimme Gimme Gimme, and thankfully, Harvey chose to go in a wildly different direction. Instead of sweet episodes with fun, quirky jokes, we got two horrible monsters of selfishness who don’t think twice about screwing over the people around them. The jokes are an extravagant mix of queer jokes, sex gags, and large doses of scatological humor. And Harvey seems interested in smashing every taboo  he can imagine: in one episode, Linda’s long-estranged son returns, but quickly the relationship sours and so, inspired by Oedipus Rex (see what I mean by high culture and low brow humor mixing?), Tom urges Linda to seduce her son. In another episode, Tom and Linda compete for the affections of a convicted murderer.

Much of the success of the show is owed to Harvey’s writing, but Burke and Dreyfus are also very important. Burke – known to many as the fast-talking Magda in Absolutely Fabulous – has a ball playing the repellent Linda. It’s a broad performance with no nuance or subtlety, but that’s okay, because it’s a lot of fun. She’s able to modulate her voice to match Linda’s mood – it’s sweet and cloying when she’s playing the coquette, but it turns into a horrible growl when she’s angry or defiant. Like Burke, Dreyfus is also having a lot of fun with a role that doesn’t tax his acting skills too much – he’s also a crack physical comedian and can throw his lanky, pipe cleaner body around, and performs as much with his limbs as he does with his expressive, rubbery face. Though other shows like AbFabFawlty Towers, or The Office have more sterling reputations (deserved, I might add), Gimme Gimme Gimme is a fun – if minor – entry in British cult comedy.

Click here to buy Gimme Gimme Gimme on amazon.com.

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Caitlin Jackson channels Bette Midler in Hell In A Handbag Productions’ ‘Bette Live at the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane’

Bette2016 Poster ImageIt’s easy to forget that Bette Midler got her start performing at New York gay bathhouses early in her career – before the movies, hit records, concert tours. For many that Bette Midler, before she got Hollywoodized and drowned her distinct voice in adult contemporary bunting, was the real artist. Bursting with energy and talent, her voice was raw and ragged – her singing overripe and pitchy, but always expressive. Her humor was bawdy and vulgar.

Hell In A Handbag Productions’ Bette Live At the Continental Baths: A Trip Down Mammary Lane is an affectionate and smart tribute to Midler’s stint at the Continental Baths. Caitlin Jackson stars as Midler in a beautiful performance. It’s not an impression nor is it a parody: instead, Jackson creates a well-rounded character. Jackson doesn’t try to mimic Midler’s voice (her voice is actually prettier than Midler’s Continental Baths days voice), and instead sings the selections with her own stamp on it – inspired by Midler’s shaggy renditions of ditties like “Friends,” “Superstar” or “I Shall Be Released” – but wholly her own.  Jackson also throws around the one-liners and gags with a bawdy insouciance – the jokes are silly, obvious, and often corny, but that’s okay – much of Midler’s comedy is good-naturedly tongue in cheek and self-referential.

Performed at Stage 773 in Lake View, the Cab Theater is a small and intimate setting. It works as a recreation of the Continental Baths, and just to make things even more realistic, Jackson is flanked by two towel-clad dancers –   TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm – who provide comic and musical backup support for Jackson’s Midler. The two men, looking very fetching in their short-short towels perform ably and get a few numbers of their own. Musical director, pianist, and arranger Jeremy Ramey is also on hand, doing an impressive job on the piano, pretending to be a young Barry Manilow, who was Midler’s accompanist during her Continental Baths days.

But the show belongs to Caitlin Jackson who does a beautiful job. She’s commanding and has a gorgeous voice. Despite performing as Bette Midler, she puts a definite stamp of her own on the songs. Her rendition of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” is stirring and lovely, as she allows the pathos of the tune shine through with her emotional performance. Another profoundly-moving tune, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” becomes a nearly-sacred experience with Jackson’s soulful singing. But she also includes some fun numbers, including a cracking reworking of The Dixie Cups’ Brill Building classic “Chapel of Love” (with wonderful support by Crawford and Wilhelm), and a high-octane performance of the Big Band ditty “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” And she makes Midler’s theme song “Friends” all her own.

There are only a few performances left, and I urge theater goers to catch a show. And the voting members of the Joseph Jefferson Awards would do well to consider gifting Jackson’s fantastic performance with a nomination.

Click here to visit Hell In A Handbag Productions Website to get tickets.

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Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg shine in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Florence Foster Jenkins

The trailer for Stephen Frears’ new film Florence Foster Jenkins is misleading in that it makes the film seem like a crowd-pleasing comedy. While very funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sentimental dramedy about unfulfilled artistic ambition. Based on the true story of Jenkins, the story talks to those who may be frustrated because they have the will and desire but not the skill or the talent.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich socialite who loved music. She also had designs on being a singer, but the trouble was she had no discernible talent. She had no ear for tone, pitch, or key. And though she had a love of music, she wasn’t terribly disciplined, and therefore her performances became legendary in their ineptness. She was an outsider artist in much the same way that Mrs. Miller or the Shaggs were – Jenkins was painfully sincere about her desires of a musical career, though, and her sincerity would eventually prove to be her undoing.

In Frears’ film – written by Nicholas Martin – we meet Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is holding court at the music appreciation club she founded. She lives in a platonic, but devoted marriage with failed actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). An early marriage resulted in Jenkins being stricken with syphilis; despite her grim prognosis, she managed to live over 50 years with the illness, though the physical damage to her body is significant: she tires easily, and cannot play the piano without pain. After a particularly-successful fundraising event, in which Jenkins starred in a series of tableaux vivant, she decides that she wants to pick up her singing. Music is crucial in her life, and aside from the love she has for her husband, music is the most important thing in her life.

It’s a this point, that the movie resembles somewhat, the light comedy that the trailer promises: Jenkins’ money convinces an important conductor to tutor and she employs a fledgling composer/pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Initially horrified at the untalented Jenkins, McMoon quickly gets enmeshed into this strange world of delusion, as he finds himself becoming more attached to the kind Jenkins. As her ambition grows, Jenkins sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, where she plans to perform for the troops who are fighting in WWII.

As far as biopics go, Florence Foster Jenkins is a solid work. It’s Frears’ at his least challenging (at least challenged). The story seems tailor made for this kind of movie. The title character makes for an intriguing underdog to root for: we know that her singing is awful – it’s horribly pitchy, and because she wants to perform arias, almost every note she attempts is hopelessly out of her reach – but she’s a kind person and her desire isn’t so much ego unchecked, but merely desire unchecked. And her passion is infectious, and audiences will root for the woman. And the character is yet another in a long list of brilliant portrayals for Meryl Streep. Possessed with a beautiful voice, Streep expertly produces some ear-gouging notes that do not feel like comically-bad warbling, but the genuine attempts of a hopelessly inept songstress. As with all her roles, Streep digs into the human being underneath the character and finds sincere moments of poignancy and beauty.

And as the befuddled pianist, Helberg is a marvel. Those familiar with his work on The Big Bang Theory, know that he’s a great comedian, but this role requires far more subtle work, and he’s marvelous: his Cosmé is a timid, souful man who loves music as much as Jenkins. Though the character is sexually ambiguous, Helberg adds subtle curlicues to his line readings and his physical performance. Like Streep, he’s dug deep into this guy and has created a full, three-dimensional person, full of tics and quirks. Because the film is so lightweight, I don’t think there will be serious talk of Oscar for Streep, but Helberg should be on the shortlist (just the actor’s reactions alone are worth a mantle full of prizes)

And Hugh Grant? Well, he’s an actor that always seems to be upstaged. In this film, he slips into the role of the hack actor St. Clair Bayfield, effortlessly. Though Grant is more talented, he essentially is the character: suave, debonair, and handsome. He still relies on his bag of tricks: the crinkle-eye smile, the slight dithering, the befuddlement and doesn’t make as near a strong impression as do his costars, but then again, that seems to be the them of Hugh Grant’s career: the laidback utility player, reliable, if unspectacular.

As far as escapist entertainment goes, Florence Foster Jenkins is a high-class production. Careful detail to setting and tone, and an engaged script make for a solid, above-average hour and a half of movie viewing. Frears’ direction seems unobtrusive, though it also feels a bit nondescript and anonymous, too. Still, he draws some great moments from his stars and Streep and Helberg are worth the price of admission.

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Barbra Streisand returns to Broadway with some famous pals on ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

Encore: Movie Partners Sing BroadwayBarbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, PartnersEncore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman,  or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.

The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.

Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).

As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.

But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.

At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious  – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway on amazon.com.

 

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