Barbra Streisand can lend the proper panache to just about anything, from a presidential inauguration bash to a Brooklyn bris. On Friday she was given the unenviable task of ushering in the largest hotel in the world in a venue about as singer-friendly as a boxing ring. In a historic concert, the Funny Girl forced herself through opening-night jitters to show why she can still enthrall an audience even with a sub-par perf.
The concert took on a life of its own long before Streisand ever set foot before some 13,000 fans in the MGM Grand’s glorified sports arena. With rumors flying for months that she was earning some $ 20 mil for her effort, expectations for this gig began to snowball. Though that figure was lowered several times by industry insiders, it nonetheless left concert-goers, some of whom shelled out $ 1,000 a pop, expecting no less than the second coming.
Streisand is good, but could she be THAT good?
Well, not at first.
In what amounted to an expensive and well-publicized dress rehearsal, Streisand may have left the Friday-night crowd wondering: How much did these tix cost? She lumbered through the first act of her concert, breathy and awkward. At one point in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” she almost stopped the song altogether to choke down a sip of water.
Only a fun, cheeky duet with the screen image of Marlon Brando in “Guys and Dolls,” not dissimilar to Natalie Cole’s video “Unforgettable” with papa Nat King Cole, salvaged the first hour.
Efforts at her timeless classics like “People” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” left Streisand battling with both the 64-piece orchestra, led ably by Marvin Hamlisch, and her own voice, which chose inopportune moments to waver. While her phrasing, as usual, echoed of brilliance — particularly on tunes like “He Touched Me”– seeming anxiety attacks gave the star trouble with her breathing.
As though explaining, Streisand several times confessed nervousness at her first live paid concert in 22 years, which added a touch of honesty to the perf. But all the angst just got in the way.
Streisand might also have touched too personal a nerve with the ongoing first-act discourse on her traumas in years of psychoanalysis. In between songs, Yentl kvetched to a series of “doctas” about her troubles with the opposite sex. Viennese doctor shtick has been dead for years, and Streisand might have been advised to omit it. But more problematic was the tone, which set the audience at odds with the performer. In becoming more intimate about herself, Streisand was, in effect, pushing the house away.
Talk about Yin/Yang, black/white, night/day, Act Two was a different story. It was as if Streisand had re-emerged, now in her flexible white suit, to say, “That was just a warmup.” Reverbing through “The Way We Were,” she settled into the material with a new-found bravado. Her tone was clear, her voice confident.
She paced the wide stage, free of the first act’s cumbersome white oak colonial furniture and hanging backdrop. The orchestra, now visible, was in synch with the star, rather than hesitantly following her.
Running through “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a medley of Disney pic songs, “Evergreen” and “My Man,” Streisand grew powerful, willing to hold high notes a touch longer.
Sadly missing was Streisand’s personalized and stirring version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” which would have made for a moving encore.
For the record, Streisand is said to have bumped up her energy a notch the second night. Reports from Saturday’s show were laced with superlatives such as “fabulous” and “staggering.”
There was no shortage of electricity in the arena, with stars of every ilk populating the pricey seats — Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Sydney Pollack, Peter Bogdanovich (though it must be said that others, including the press, were relegated to the top of the bleachers where they could read Streisand’s teleprompter complete with ad libs).
Streisand even announced the attendance of Virginia Kelley, President Clinton’s mother, and Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King. (The second night reportedly saw Michael Jackson, who sat near the stage with Steven Spielberg.)
Though prone to polemics, Streisand thankfully left her concert relatively politics-free. Only during her lusciously lively rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again” did an ironic Streisand allow a series of stills on the huge overhead TVs with images such as Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Anita Hill, Nelson Mandela, the PLO-Israel peace accord, headlines of NAFTA, the Brady gun plan, Roe v. Wade abortion issues and women newly elected to the Senate.
Streisand did find some laughs with a few shots at MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian and the hotel, which reportedly failed to provide its headliner with hot water in her penthouse suite.
“I’m so glad you called me back,” Streisand said in her encore, “because this means I don’t have to go back to my room. … Kirk — a billion dollars?”
She also got some mileage out of a comedy bit with “Saturday Night Live” star Mike Myers, doing his shtick as Long Island’s public access talkshow queen Linda Richman. The pair both got “verklemt.” Talk amongst yourselves.
Earning a reported $ 6 million per night for the MGM Grand, the concert is thought to be the highest-grossing single show in entertainment history. Though MGM officials are mum about the money, they can’t be displeased with the outcome. The shows may be the touchstone for the transformation of Vegas from a showplace with big-breasted showgirls to a family entertainment center.
In that sense, Streisand had more than just personal integrity riding on the gig. If Vegas headliners must now pass a clean-and-healthy test, Streisand may have set the standard. The bigger question is: Will sheever come back?