George C. Wolfe
The world has very few true Broadway legends left, especially none still appearing on stage and as in your face as Elaine Stritch. Now in her eighties, she remains as funny, fragile and as forceful a performer as you are ever likely to see.
She is late arriving on stage. Anxiety and excitement ripple through an auditorium full of people eager to see Stritchs second coming. Her recent-ish stint at the Old Vic brought the house down night after night and expectations are high. Then out she comes in her trademarked white shirt, her long lean legs in black tights, and the audience enter an all too brief period of rapture.
The Tony winning At Liberty is a musical account of Elaine Stritchs life performed by the lady herself. And what a life! From Broadway to Brando to battling with booze and blizzards, to the soaring peaks and shadowy valleys of show business, the stories come thick and fast.
If you havent seen an octogenarian on stage before then a treat is in store, for Stritch exudes energy, rhythm and verve; she tap dances, swings, and commands the small orchestra. She is sharp, sassy and mesmeric, with a vast array of winks and waves to dismiss us or draw us in. This is her life from her lips, and that is what makes the show so powerful.
Her narration is interspersed with some of her best known numbers, included in such a way that they bring a strong sense of unity to this confessional piece, thus credit is due to the writer John Lahr and director George C. Wolfe for hitting the perfect balance in that respect. Highlights include Nol Cowards sardonic Why Do the Wrong People Travel?, Rodger and Harts Zip from Pal Joey, and Stephen Sondheims I’m Still Here (Elaine slyly references at those 40 year old upstarts who start singing the song before they have apparently been anywhere).
Even when she stumbles on her lines, just like a professional, she turns her errors into masterstrokes. At one point she is pretending (or not) to adjust her dentures while she signals a return to the top to repeat the scene. Her spontaneous patter is so beautifully, wittily and irascibly delivered that it begs the question; why doesn’t she improvise more? Indeed the deviations from the script trigger such delight in the besotted audience that they too will go home eager to tell stories of their own.
Elaines account of alcoholism is the single dark thread that runs through the piece. The story of how this mighty woman helplessly succumbed to surreptitiously sipping is presented with intimacy and honesty in a manner that is genuinely affecting while maintaining a certain emotional distance.
To close, she sings Coward’s If Love Were All, and with it encompasses a whole whirlwind of bitter sweetness that life might be. She communicates a unique sagacity that comes with age, having longed, loved and lost. While she may have been a star in her youth, her Broadway hey-day, she has gone beyond that now. This is a true theatre masterclass. Elaine Stritch is still here, still going strong and still coming up with the goods.