Even if you’d never watched the Ed Sullivan show, you probably know what it was. The variety show brought the Beatles to television. Ed and his show played a central part in the Broadway musical (and film) Bye Bye Birdie. Any1950s-1960s period film or television series will make mention of or reference to Ed Sullivan. Ed and his really big show, liked to discover talent. He was an American popular culture tastemaker for decades. He wasn’t a performer in any traditional sense; he was a host.
That would be where Barbra Streisand’s new show and Mr. Sullivan’s old show part company. Barbra is a performer and (just in case you missed it) is performing in Brooklyn for the first time. Her show, at the spanking new Barclays Center, entitled Back To Brooklyn, opened last night. It was a long show featuring several performers and videos. She sang some too.
The concert (with a start time of 8:00 PM) started some time after 8:30 PM. It was fun to picture the ghost of Judy Garland whispering in Barbra’s ear; “not yet, you can’t go out yet.” A slideshow of Barbra’s childhood to Funny Girl played on the scrim while the ravishing orchestra treated the audience to beautiful arrangements of bits of her best. The scrim dropped (in a rather quaint old-fashioned stage-handy manner) and the stage was revealed. The stage was designed in and around the orchestra, allowing the audience full view of the wonderful musicians. Barbra appeared and bantered her way into “As If We Never Said Good-bye” from Sunset Boulevard. Whether the song benefited from altering the lyrics to include words such as “lox, knish, and Flatbush” is a matter of personal taste. Shortly after the song, and after many unsuccessful attempts, the audience was able to communicate that the spotlights aimed at the audience’s eyes (for the past hour) must be turned off. Blessedly she got it and took care of her audience. We were then able to see her ravishing self. In the first of three outfits (not including a sequined James Brown cape) she was spectacular.
After a few songs the first of her guests were presented. A young Italian singing trio; Il Volo took the stage; engaged in some rehearsed banter, and sang one song with Barbra. Barbra then left the stage for Il Volo to perform on their own. They have strong, if not particularly interesting voices, but it felt odd to sit through an opening act during a concert already in progress. Barbra returned and sang a bit more and answered (prescreened) question, at times quite humorously. More acts were introduced throughout the night; a trumpeter, a violinist, a drummer, and a children’s choir. If your musical taste is the same as Ms. Streisand this may have been a welcome treat. There was one guest who added tremendously to the evening. The audience was introduced to the guest via a film (one of three shown about Barbra.) This was a film Barbra’s son Jason had made for her birthday. It was a lovely montage of mother and son photos throughout the years (with ages 8-24 somewhat missing in action.) The audio was a stirring rendition of Nature Boy (Nat King Cole) sung by none other than Jason. He joined his mother on stage for what was without question the best 15 minutes of the concert. Jason appeared slightly nervous, and extremely handsome. Barbra simply melted in his pressence. She was a maternal puddle and a swooning fan. Mr. Gould does have a beautiful, pure and strong voice. He seems to have found a sound that is all his own, yet not surprisingly he blended perfectly with his mother in duet.
Barbra’s solo numbers included a brief tribute to her recently departed friend and colleague Marvin Hamlisch and a nice shout-out to the late Donna Summer. The bells and whistles number was most certainly the show-tune medley (2 parts Gypsy and 1 part Funny Girl.) Other audience favorites included; Evergreen, People, and Happy Days. All songs had been newly arranged to accommodate her range. It created an interesting effect, similar to seeing a new interpretation of a classic play. Her voice has changed rather noticeably. It was a bit stressful for the audience to worry about notes being hit. She is a seasoned (to put it mildly) performer and knew just how to recover each and every time.
Audiences will not be disappointed if they are prepared for a variety show. No doubt when the show hits the road it will no longer be called; “Back To Brooklyn.” A more apt title might be; “Barbra and Friends.”