Singing Seniors

Bea's material, in contrast, mostly belongs to anybody but Bea, and she's far too gracious to do anything as crass as seizing it for her own. The hither-and-yon quality of her selections suggests hors d'oeuvres, from various ethnic cuisines, served on the terrace in lieu of a heavy sitdown dinner—not inappropriate for a show that opens with the star's favorite recipe for roast lamb, derived (Bea gives full credit) from Julia Child. Bea's career survey, lacking the big downs and recoveries of Stritch's, makes for a string of anecdotes, lewd jokes, and reflections, which the songs sometimes illustrate and sometimes just interrupt pleasantly. She sings songs that evoke Ethel Merman (also a presence in Stritch's show) and Mabel Mercer; a double-entendre comedy number associated with the British music-hall star Leslie Sarony, and another one last dished up on Broadway by Ruth Brown in Black and Blue. Reminiscences of Lenya and Threepenny Opera lead to the politest rendering ever of "Pirate Jenny," and Bea's tribute to her accompanist, composer Billy Goldenberg (who should study the piano part of "Pirate Jenny"), is a song from Ballroom that Broadway's memory links to Dorothy Loudon.

In all this there's nothing shameful, or even irritating. If Bea doesn't intersect deeply with her material, her aplomb in presenting it constitutes a sort of lesson in taking life as it comes. Stritch's more thundery event preaches an alternate wisdom: how to bounce back from the fear-driven choices that undo us all. Bea's charm, even when sardonic, makes you feel welcome; Stritch's intensity makes you riffle nervously through your past, hoping you were never in such a state. Bea is democratic, but distant; Stritch is shattering, but solipsistic. Is there a middle way? Barbara Cook, whose solo show will be back at the Vivian Beaumont in June, didn't get into this review by accident.

Arthur and Stritch: channeling lifetimes
illustration: Shawn Barber
Arthur and Stritch: channeling lifetimes

Details

Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends
Booth Theatre Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-398-8383

Barbara Cook: Mostly Sondheim
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center (closed; will return in June)

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Like Bea, Cook has been a sustained presence, though live rather than in the two-dimensional media. Like Stritch's, her career has had a big slump and a climb back up. But unlike them, she was trapped early on in a recognizable category: the ingenue, blonde, soprano, and eternally virginal. The career slump came when she was getting too mature for this role. Instead of becoming either a recovery case or a personality, she went deeper into her singing, and found acting there. Bea serves up her songs as acquired objects of interest; Stritch makes hers express her own pain. Cook, in contrast, finds herself through the pain or pleasure in the song. As a result, she can make the most improbable songs sound fresh and new, as well as personal to her. In her show, dedicated to Sondheim and to songs by others that he loves, she renders such un-Cook-like items as "Hard-Hearted Hannah" and Arlen's "The Eagle and Me," containing truths that are a long way from Marian the Librarian. She reawakens the laughs in numbers so familiar they've long since ceased to be funny, like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." And she neither lures us into nor sloughs off the bumpy road of her life; it is simply there, to be noted, like the rest of reality, while she gets on with the business of singing. And will there be new musicals worth her singing? Probably, when every young performer on Broadway strives to be as serenely in control as Bea, as passionately self-revealing as Stritch, and as securely centered in his or her work as Cook.

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