After waiting 50 years for her first hometown borough concert, Barbra Streisand was not about to disappoint fans — or herself — during her first of two nights at Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. “I don’t think of myself, as Ethel Merman (once called me), as ‘a belter,'” she once claimed, and she’s spent the last decade singing mostly quieter material, showcasing a unique beauty in her voice that’s gone virtually undiminished. Yet she filled last night’s nearly three-hour concert with challenging songs that seemed designed to honor her history, counter doubts about whether she’s too old for her upcoming bigscreen “Gypsy” role, and perhaps self-test the limits of her 70-year-old voice head on.
For the most important stop on a seven-city U.S. tour which wraps up next month at the Hollywood Bowl, her show opened with a video of rare home movies and pics from her youth and early career, taken from the upcoming 12-DVD set “Barbra Streisand: My Life in Words and Music” (in which this filmed homecoming may appear).
The slideshow included congratulatory telegrams from the original Dolly, Carol Channing, and the original Mama Rose, Merman, whose part she’s set to tackle in Uni’s “Gypsy.” They were the first signs that Streisand would fill the arena with the belting, Broadway-style numbers that made her a legend.
Launching the show with “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” modified with hometown-centric lyrics (“the Brooklyn docks, the Nova lox… a world with hot knishes is incredibly delicious, and I need a moment”), she delivered her first belt — “I’ve come home at last” — with the same power it had in her 1994 tour opener.
At other moments, time — and possibly an emerging cold, something she mentioned while sipping a cup of chicken soup onstage — gave a frayed, hoarse edge to songs like “Didn’t We” (taken from her fine new compilation of unreleased tracks, “Release Me”). Yet as Streisand showed on various nights of her 1994 and 2006-7 tours, she’s more fueled by her mood than most singers, seemingly able to psych herself into or out of any given performance, making mind over matter as big a factor as the realities of any 70-year-old singer’s pipes.
Nowhere were all of these factors more evident than during her tribute to composer Jule Styne. After a somewhat rough turn on “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough,” she gave a vivid preview of her “Gypsy” role with “Rose’s Turn/Some People,” and some ragged edges only enhanced her performance of harsh lines like “I’m not some old book on a shelf!” At times, she sounded like the angriest Jewish grandma in the Tri-State area, kvetching up a storm, and it worked. (It should be noted, however, that Streisand looked as naturally well-preserved on the Barclays’ screens as a fiftysomething woman could hope to, aided in part by Donna Karan-designed stagewear). Turning on a dime, she channeled that rage into one of the most powerful versions of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” she’s ever done, submerging any flaws underneath the full-bodied, powerful voice that made her a superstar.
Her emotional state also seemed to strengthen a tribute to her longtime friend and collaborator Marvin Hamlisch, bringing forth a solid “The Way We Were” (with his original soundtrack arrangement, conducted masterfully by musical director William Ross), followed by a version of his “Through the Eyes of Love” with special lyrics about Hamlisch.
With many old friends in the crowd, the nostalgic Streisand seemed mostly at ease with the audience and her legacy, her frequently funny banter more natural and less forced than at some other concerts. As in her 2009 Village Vanguard showcase, she was often at her best with softer material. Top perfs in the show (co-helmed by Richard Jay-Alexander and Streisand) included “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and the inevitable “People,” which somehow didn’t feel obligatory.
Mid-show appearances by trumpeter Chris Botti and Italian teen tenor trio Il Volo seemed to inspire Streisand to deliver two great moments: the delicate, touching “What’ll I Do” with Botti (a classic she’s never performed or recorded) and “Smile,” with her vocals admirably matching the tenors. The acts’ solo turns (including Botti’s duet with violinist Caroline Campbell on “Emmanuel”) also received a warm audience response.
Few fans imagined her 45-year-old son Jason Gould could sing, let alone turn in a strong solo perf (“This Masquerade”) and duet with his mother (“How Deep is the Ocean”) on songs taken from his new self-released EP debut. (“It’s on sale in the lobby!” announced a proud Streisand). The public debut of his clear, soft voice was one of the show’s nice surprises.
After gathering the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and her supporting acts on her unreleased 80s track “Make Our Garden Grow,” Streisand said she didn’t want to get too political — then jokingly did — before encoring the long evening with another unexpectedly powerful take on her classic Democratic Party anthem, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
At 70, after many years spent downplaying her unique gift in favor of acting, directing and other pursuits, Streisand once again feels like she has something to prove as a singer. If her current tour is any indication, she’s still willing to go for it and, when she puts her mind to it, she’s still got it.