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Elaine Stritch salutes the Stephen Sondheim canon with savvy

In her Walt Disney Concert Hall debut, the performer approaches the work of the master of musical theater with moxie and veneration.

May 21, 2012|By David C. Nichols, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Elaine Stritch brought her "Salute to Sondheim" show to Disney Hall, accompanied by Rob Bowman, on Saturday.
Elaine Stritch brought her "Salute to Sondheim" show to Disney… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

The artistic sagacity of Stephen Sondheim met the personal veracity of Elaine Stritch on Saturday, when "Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim … One Song at a Time" strode into Walt Disney Concert Hall, leaving venue and audience ineffably transformed.

In her Disney Hall debut, Stritch and this acclaimed 2010 Café Carlyle salute to the master of American musical theater didn't so much seize the house as subsume its regard and send it back tenfold. Visibly charged by the capacity crowd's ovation, Stritch opened with "I Feel Pretty," weaving her sandpaper Sprechstimme around Sondheim's lyrics to wryly irresistible, post-Noel Coward effect.

She followed up that droll insouciance with a jaw-dropping coup: a starkly visceral take on "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy" that brought the id of that classic into electrifying bas-relief. But then, that's Stritch, a force of theatrical nature if ever one lived.

What other Broadway nonesuch would so candidly cop to her nerves, whether over-singing Sondheim — "Boy, oh, boy, is he tough" —or playing Disney Hall —"The chic side of Mickey Mouse"? Who but the most entitled trouper could join the memory issues of a still-pert octogenarian to the giddy élan of a stage-struck kid, as repeated prompting from ace musical director Rob Bowman, the fulcrum of a swank six-piece combo and subsequent upped-ante song reboots demonstrated?

And who else could explore Sondheim's canon with such tightrope-walking moxie and genuine veneration amid the sassy ad libs, from a dove-toned "Love Is in the Air" to a quietly elegiac "There's a Parade in Town" to a spoken declamation of "Every Day a Little Death" that approached Anne Sexton territory?

Elaine Stritch, that's who, and when she launched her signature "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company," decades melted away, it was 1970 again, and pandemonium ensued. Perhaps only fellow national treasures Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters convey quite such singular, idiomatic interpretative resources and comprehension of Sondheim's genius as does this living legend and ever-infectious diseuse.

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