"It pays not to tour for a while," Barbra Streisand quipped after being hit with the first roar of an eager 16,000 fans packed into the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia Wednesday night, the start of a 16-city North American tour that reaches Washington next week.
Never mind that folks paid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in 2000 to catch what was billed as her final public concert performances. Legends have every right to change their minds.
FOR THE RECORD - The name of a song Barbra Streisand performed Wednesday was incorrect in a review in yesterday's Movies Today section. She performed "The Woman in the Moon" from A Star Is Born.
The Sun regrets the errors.
And Streisand, who has sung for the throngs infrequently during her long career, can count on generating intense interest every time and place she decides to take the stage. (Well, almost. A Detroit date was dropped because of sluggish ticket sales, but the rest of the tour is apparently in good shape, box office-wise.)
The impetus behind concertizing this time around is to raise money for her foundation (ticket prices are $100-$750), which supports environmental, health and educational causes. "I guess you could call me a charity slut," she said in explaining the philanthropic part of the concertizing.
Early on in the nearly three-hour show (with intermission), Streisand's voice sounded hoarse and constricted. Her emotional wattage was a shade underpowered, too, during the first half. Even one of her surefire, owned-by-Barbra songs, "My Man," didn't quite get the gooseflesh into full upright position, as you would expect.
But the voice kept getting stronger and warmer as the evening progressed, reaching an incendiary level in short order. She delivered "When the Sun Comes Out" with a vintage punch, sounding, at 64, remarkably like the young woman who lit up that torch song with such startling force in the early 1960s.
With the orchestra playing the overture to Funny Girl and Streisand making her entrance with "Starting Here, Starting Now," it was clear that the night was going to owe a lot to her golden age.
She sang several songs that helped define her as a vocal artist, including "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" -- both phrased with particular nuance and beautifully molded tone.
But this was no mere nostalgic act. Streisand also added to her repertoire, including a moody 1990s ballad by Karen Akers, "Unusual Way," and a gem from South Pacific, "Cockeyed Optimist," that she filled with fresh, stirring relevance for our uncertain world: "I hear the human race is falling on its face and hasn't very far to go. But I'm stuck, like a dope, with a thing called hope, and I can't get it out of my heart. Not this heart."
Her account of "My Shining Hour," another item new for her, was a high point of the evening, the sort of classic ballad she was born to sing. Too bad she wasted time on the forgettable "Woman in the Woman" from A Star is Born.
But questionable choices were minimal. And, all the while, the woman famously prone to stage fright seemed thoroughly at ease and at home. Streisand gave every appearance of enjoying herself up there on the unfussy stage, a series of platforms built around the nearly 60-member orchestra that played sturdily for music director Bill Ross.
She poked fun at herself, saying early on, "I'm not that fat," as if reading minds in the arena. (Yes, she is a little, well, fuller, than the last time she toured, but still like-buttah gorgeous.) And she even handled a heckler with aplomb, the type she anticipated with a laugh earlier: "You know how some of you cringe when I talk about politics."
Of course, the famously left-leaning singer introduced political talk along the way, but with more humor than her detractors might expect, thanks to uncanny President Bush impersonator Steve Bridges.
The faux leader of the free world exchanged good-natured, if overlong, banter with "Babs" (she called him "Dubs"), occasionally setting her straight.("Since you were selected," she said; "Elected," came the reply.)
The two even did a duet together, although the iconic "Happy Days Are Here Again"/"Get Happy" duet she sang with Judy Garland is much too good to be thrown away like this.
The only serious miscue of the show was letting Il Divo, the vacuous popera act, get into the act. This older version of a boy band, without a single distinctive voice among them, chimed in with Streisand on various numbers, walked around the stage to strike male-model poses and performed solo a few times. Allowing these guys to sing "My Way" shifted the concert into cruise-ship level.
In the end, nothing could diminish the raison d'etre of the event. This was Streisand's night. From all the vivid-colored memories of the way she was, to the wonderful new material, the concert reaffirmed how much this singer still has to offer, more than four decades after she first laid claim to being "the greatest star."