Elaine Stritch is back home at the Carlyle with yet another expert evening’s entertainment. But there’s a difference: The ready-for-anything, tough-as-nails veteran still has that glare that can slay you, but the star — who turns 85 in February — no longer seems to have the stamina to breeze through 12 rounds of haymakers. Which, combined with the sentiments of Sondheim, makes this an engagement that fans of the lady will not want to miss.
Stritch capped her six-decade career in 2002 with the bravura “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” earning new acclaim plus a well-deserved Tony Award. Her subsequent appearances more or less drew on that material, but now we get a substantially new act drawn solely from the Sondheim songbook. Stritch and longtime music director Rob Bowman have strung together 13 songs demonstrating the many moods and colors of both songwriter and singer. The overall effect is rousing, artful and poignant.
The lady garnered laughs with her unlikely opening number, “I Feel Pretty.” Rather than saving fireworks for the next-to-closing spot, she then launched into a riveting “Rose’s Turn.” This turned out to be a good move; after proving herself here, she could relax for the rest of that set.
The star never got to play Rose; she was announced to star in the 1972 London production of “Gypsy,” but when the producers couldn’t raise the money, they aligned with a new co-producer whose sister (Angela Lansbury) played it instead. Stritch didn’t sing “Rose’s Turn” here, or act it; she lived it, watching ghosts in the background. (When she missed a section of lyric at the performance attended, it didn’t seem like a mistake; she gave the true illusion of making it up as she went along. She later also lost part of her signature piece, “The Ladies Who Lunch” — which didn’t in any way diminish the performance.)
The 60-minute set was well chosen, with “Send in the Clowns,” a jaunty “Love Is in the Air,” a new-for-Stritch take on “Broadway Baby” and a highly effective lyrics-only recitation of “Every Day a Little Death” among the highlights. Most welcome was the decision to end this Sondheim salute with his recent and very worthy “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” from “Road Show.” Bowman served as a friendly and supportive accompanist, leading a fine six-piece band in authentically Sondheim-esque orchestrations by the great Jonathan Tunick.
Sondheim is in for a season of rhapsodizing, in celebration of his 80th birthday on March 22. In a somewhat ironic twist, central among the celebrators are three legendary stage stars older than the master himself. Lansbury is over at the Walter Kerr in a revival of “A Little Night Music,” while Barbara Cook is preparing for rehearsals for “Sondheim on Sondheim” (due in April at Studio 54). All three are distinctive, celebrated, historically linked and artistically drawn to Sondheim, and all on view in New York this season. We can hope for a similar Sondheim fete in 2015, but fans might want to take advantage of what is on hand just now, starting with “Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim … One Song at a Time” at the Carlyle.