There was no shortage of thrilling moments in the first of Barbra Streisand’s two New York concerts in her, let’s call it, return-farewell tour: She revved up into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” wrapped her still-supple chords around “My Man,” pumped warm sensuality into Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and explored the somber side of love with “In a Very Unusual Way” from “Nine.” But perhaps the most thrilling moment was hearing her swear at a heckler. There was an almost voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing this peerless entertainer in a rare unguarded moment, when she momentarily mislaid her composure and strayed from the script.
The angry audience member was a disgruntled Republican, responding to some ill-considered shtick involving George W. Bush impersonator Steve Bridges. No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, the material was lame.
Streisand later apologized for losing her temper, returning to the Teleprompter to segue into a mollifying prayer for tolerance, compassion and peace. Coming late in the show after a strong first act, the political section briefly unbalanced a second act that nonetheless contained plenty of highs.
If the “Funny Girl” overture that kicked off the concert wasn’t indication enough, the more mature, glammed-up version of a classic Streisand sailor dress communicated that the singer was in a nostalgic mood. This was a rich retrospective lineup of carefully chosen material, heavy on Broadway and ballads, that showcased the performer in a mellow mood, backed by music director William Ross’ superb 55-piece orchestra.
Her voice was creamy and confident on “Starting Here, Starting Now,” jazzy on “Down With Love” and still capable of warmly emotional storytelling on “The Way We Were,” sung to composers Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch sitting down front. There was the occasional hint of strain, but Streisand’s voice has lost remarkably little of its integrity or interpretive power.
The first-act highlight was a lustrous retake on most of the more memorable songs from the stage and film versions of “Funny Girl.” In addition to “Parade” and “My Man,” she did the title song written for the movie, “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and a big, assured “People,” one of several numbers that brought the capacity Garden crowd to its feet.
The luminous moments carried over into the show’s second half, almost all of them from vintage songbooks: “When the Sun Comes Out,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and an especially reflective “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” The latter showed Streisand’s immense talent for breathing stillness and intimacy into a song.
After some disposable rhetoric about the challenges of parenting, she sang a fine pairing of “Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.” And her embrace, following the customary political digs, of a glass-half-full outlook was aired in a wistful “A Cockeyed Optimist.”
Scripted down to all but a few ad libs, the belabored spoken interludes don’t dampen the spell of Streisand’s singing, but they feel pat and counterfeit next to the real, expressive personality in her vocals. That’s why the lapse in self-control and the unleashed expletive were almost welcome.
The low point of the show is featured act Il Divo. Emerging like preening show ponies on an elevator revolve to join Streisand on “Evergreen,” the multinational faux-classical quartet then trowel on the formaggio with some cringeworthy mutual flattery — all of it scrolling by on the teleprompter — before the boss leaves them alone for an interminable three-song set. The four singers later return to butcher Streisand’s beautiful “Somewhere” with bombastic overkill.
The 11-city Streisand tour, a part of the proceeds from which goes through the singer’s foundation to various political, environmental, humanitarian and educational causes, continues through Nov. 20, wrapping at Staples Center in Los Angeles.