Broadway vet Elaine Stritch is not only a distinct and hilarious stage comedienne, but an excellent raconteur, as evidenced by the fantastic Elaine Stritch at Liberty available on DVD and CD (though the DVD is pretty difficult to find). Stritch has had a pretty wild and eventful life, starting with her precocious childhood in a wealthy Detroit suburb, to being the toast of Broadway as well as a big hit in London’s West End. Along the way, she’s nursed personal and professional disappointments, while having to contend with an alcohol problem that would later have detrimental effects on her work as well as her relationships.
Stritch appears on stage in a white dress shirt and stockings – despite her advanced age, Stritch’s set of gams would’ve made Tina Turner green with envy. The stage is set in extreme minimalism: there’s just Stritch and a highboy chair. And that’s okay, because the show is really all about the actress and her storied career – as well as her legendary irreverence and bawdy language.
The show is structured somewhat chronologically – we’re invited to Stritch’s childhood in Detroit, where she’s the darling of a loving nanny and two seemingly indulgent parents. She then moves on to her time in convent school and acting school, with a young, brooding hopeful named Marlon Brando. We’re also given first-hand accounts of triumphs on the stage as well as audition tales and gossipy dish – all of these stories are peppered with some familiar showbiz names like Noel Coward, Gloria Swanson, Hal Prince – Stritch even does a great Judy Garland impression, when recounting a tale of a particularly rousing night of drinking that kept her up past 8 in the morning.
And drinking is a pretty common theme in the show – her alcoholism, looms, casting a large, consuming shadow over every story she tells. Stritch is frank, without self-pity, as she talks about how her drunken behavior cost her some choice roles (she didn’t do so hot in an audition for a huge NBC sitcom that went on for 7 seasons – I won’t spoil the surprise and tell you which one it is).
But this isn’t a gloomy evening at the theater. Stritch is a first-rate comedienne, and she tells the stories – even the sad ones – with a great deal of wit and self-deprecating humor. She’s also got a great sense of timing and despite her age, a strong command of physical comedy – her recounting of a stage-hogging costar in a production of The Women is priceless.
Aside from the stories, Stritch also sings a few songs. She’s a Broadway legend, whose voice is known for its acerbic, booming quality – age has weathered it a bit, but her lung power is surprisingly robust. She can still belt with an estimable volume; but because she doesn’t possess a technically pretty voice, she relies on heavy characterization when she performs. Her huge hit “Ladies Who Lunch” is a climax of the show – despite singing it for 30 years now, she’s still able to present it without staleness; Another Broadway chestnut, “I’m Still Here,” which feels tailor-made for Stritch, also is performed – the song’s lyrics of clawing one’s way to the top, and then trying to do all one can to stay there, serves as a great metaphor for Stritch’s own career – it’s a great choice. She sings other songs – many of them broken up throughout the show, to allow for more rambling – though none of the musical numbers reach the height of “Ladies Who Lunch” they’re all still enjoyable.
The format of the show highlights Stritch’s strengths, catering to what she does best. She remains focused on her stage career, giving a brief glance at her film work, and really the show’s a nostalgic look at a Broadway, New York society that’s on its last legs. Still, even if the stories are tales of old, they’re still part of showbiz lore that’s great to listen to.