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The girl can't help it

Barbra Streisand had a farewell tour in 2000, but now she's back. Fans just call this one `fantastic.'

October 06, 2006|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

PHILADELPHIA — "You never know," said Mary Jonas, clutching a 1964 Playbill for the Philadelphia tryout of what became the Broadway hit "Funny Girl." The program had a smiling 21-year-old Barbra Streisand on the cover. Jonas was 21 then too. "I could get an autograph. She's one mercurial lady, so it might happen. I was there. I am here. So is she."

Fifty gold albums and purported farewell tours and farewell concerts later, the truly mercurial Streisand floated on a cloud of adulation from the likes of Jonas and 16,000 other acolytes here Wednesday night as she began a 16-city, 20-date tour, culminating Nov. 20 at Staples Center.

Surely, the people who came to see Streisand, backed and complemented for about a third of the concert by the Three-Tenorish "popera" quartet Il Divo, were willing to take a chance that their heroine would be formidable. Tickets had face values up to $750. Lines for merchandise were a dozen deep in the Wachovia Center's lobby even an hour before the concert. Programs cost a mere $40, with concert-logo sweatshirts $75 and a leather jacket $375, making the $7.50 draft Bud look like a bargain.

"I walked from the Holiday Inn -- free parking," said Bill Matthews, 63, huffing a bit and sipping a $5 diet cola from the concession stand. "Six blocks. Good exercise. Paid $250 for tickets so have to save somewhere."

The crowd may have been well heeled, but it was definitely Philadelphia casual: primarily upper-middle-aged-plus, few ties or dresses anywhere, and rubber-soled shoes dominated. Though "Barbra Streisand Concert Champagne Featured Drinks" were touted with signs at the large lobby bars, beer and nachos seemed de rigueur, and the TVs there often switched to the baseball playoffs from the original vintage Streisand footage.

Still, when the concert began, the crowd was enthusiastic for its diva, cheering most every song and story.

Streisand's staging was as simple and refined as it gets in these days of hockey-arena concerts. The 54-piece orchestra was set in a purple-and-white-lighted pit with three-tiered stairways on either side and in the middle. When Streisand appeared after a rendition of the "Funny Girl" overture, coming from below on a raised platform in the midst of the musicians, she was in an elegant black gown with silver sequins and a relatively demure slit up her left leg. She came to the front, where there was only a cushioned chair and a small table with a tiny flower arrangement. Rosie O'Donnell and Streisand's husband, actor James Brolin, were the only obvious star guests in the house, and even they sat, albeit in the front row, merely in the same cushioned chairs found everywhere on the arena floor.

The concert itself held no surprises. If Ricky Nelson long ago lamented in "Garden Party" that all the fans wanted were the old songs, Streisand, who long has thrived on contrariness, was happy to oblige. There was practically everything popular from "Funny Girl," a Harold Arlen tribute, "The Way We Were," and that evergreen "Evergreen."

The crowd was nearly reverentially silent during Streisand's singing, yet luxurious with cheers and standing ovations throughout the two-hour concert. There was ubiquitous cellphone use throughout -- the clicking of phones for either long-distance photos or calls home for a quick listen of a song or two.

Streisand called attention to the huge teleprompter hanging scoreboard-like over what would be center ice. She said she had forgotten the lyrics to three songs during a 1967 concert in New York's Central Park, the freak-out from that causing her to retire from live concerts for 27 years. She was not going to leave that announcement to chance either -- even that being up in big letters on the prompter.

She ad-libbed little, mostly thanking the crowd for shouted-out accolades. Her voice was always strong, though her comments were mostly subdued. She had an overly long skit with impressionist Steve Bridges imitating President Bush as a Streisand fan. Bush/Bridges spouted political malapropisms, while Streisand would retort with only mildly denigrating lines about Republicans. They then sang a duet that she had originally done with Judy Garland on TV in the 1960s -- Streisand with "Happy Days Are Here Again" and Bush/Bridges goofily soft-shoeing "Get Happy" in a sort of a round.

Otherwise, Streisand's rhetoric was primarily about peace and harmony, prefacing "Somewhere," from "West Side Story," with a line from Bishop Desmond Tutu and reading a long quote from author William Saroyan. She has said that she will donate as much as $10 million of the estimated $90 million the tour will generate to her foundation and other causes, some political, but on stage she said her first donation from the Philadelphia show will go to arts education.

She made no mention, though, of the ticket prices. Her last full-scale tour in 1993-94 had a top price -- then considered outrageous -- of $350, so this tour more than doubles that. She did, however, offer a simple explanation of why she's on the road again after her two-city, four-night "farewell tour" six years ago. "I love it, and why not?" she said to that question from the audience.

Streisand went out with the World War II Mercer-Arlen ballad, "My Shining Hour," no one in the crowd leaving early. When they did go, they again started buying concert paraphernalia.

"I'm betting this, sure, will be the last time," said Martha Peters, 67, hoisting up her new $40 concert T-shirt. "She's almost my age and still so good. But even for her, enough is enough."

*

Barbra Streisand

Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St.,

Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20

Price: $200 to $750

Contact: (213) 742-7340

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