It was an evening that elicited tears, standing ovations, raucous laughter and shouts of joy from the audience — and that was just in the first few minutes.
Yes, Barbra Streisand’s return to touring after a 12-year absence was the extravaganza that it promised to be. Monday night’s show at Madison Square Garden was the third stop of a 20-city jaunt across the nation — a virtual lovefest between the ultimate diva and an adoring, sold-out, celebrity-dotted crowd.
Streisand effortlessly crooned through a select repertoire of her four decades of hits. But night’s most riveting moment came during what was perhaps the only unscripted — and truly uncomfortable — episode in the three-hour show.
There was Streisand, enduring a smattering of loud jeers as she and “George Bush” — a celebrity impersonator — muddled through a skit that portrayed the president as a bumbling idiot.
Though most of the crowd offered polite applause during the slightly humorous routine, it had gone on a bit too long, especially for those who just wanted to hear Streisand sing like she had been doing for the past hour.
“Come on, be polite!” the well-known liberal implored during the sketch as she and “Bush” exchanged zingers. But one heckler wouldn’t let up. And finally, Streisand let him have it.
“Shut the (expletive) up!” Streisand bellowed, drawing wild applause. “Shut up if you can’t take a joke!”
With that one F-word, the jeers ended. And the message was delivered — no one gets away with trying to upstage Barbra Streisand, especially not in her hometown.
Once the outburst (which Streisand later apologized for) was over, Streisand noted that “the artist’s role is to disturb,” and delivered a message of tolerance before launching into a serenely beautiful rendition of “Somewhere.” That put the focus back on what the audience came for — her voice, one of the greatest female instruments of her generation.
Streisand’s sound, at once soaring and soothing, doesn’t seem to have been affected much by her long layoff from performing.
Early on she seemed to fall short of her full potential — moments when she once belted a tune, she now seemed to simply sing at a steady register, sounding great but not delivering that the big showstopper as she had in the past. But as the evening progressed she got stronger, such as during her stirring performance of one of her biggest hits, “People.”
Though she sang a few of her signature songs (“They Way We Were,” “Evergreen”), the evening was not designed as a hit parade — some of her most popular work was absent. Instead, the show had more of a cabaret feel, from the choice of songs (including those from her Oscar-winning performance in “Funny Girl”) to her onstage banter. Though most of it was completely scripted and read from a teleprompter, there were a few funny, spontaneous moments, such as when one fan shouted out, “Marry me, and I’m gay!” to which Streisand, a gay icon, replied: “There are gay people here?”
The comedic moments were best when unscripted. The few planned skits came across as forced and trite, such as when Il Divo, the dreamy, operatic boy band, came out to sing backup and joked about their difference in ages.
Streisand relinquished the stage twice to Il Divo, a Simon Cowell creation known for their crossover style. Though they apparently pleased the crowd, they were grating at times. They would have served better as an opening act instead of having Streisand leave the stage in their hands — it was like going to a Madonna concert and having her surrender the stage to Brooke Hogan.
When Streisand was on stage — and most importantly, when she was singing — she was masterful. Her performance of “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” — sung just before her outburst — was poignant, especially from an entertainer who has spent so many years away from the spotlight.
By the time she offered her encore with the rousing “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” it was clear that Streisand hadn’t stayed too long — she hadn’t stayed long enough.