For years, part of the mystique surrounding Barbra Streisand was the rarity of her public performances.
Those lucky enough to have seen her in smoky nightclubs in the early 1960s, when she was the gangly "kook" wearing thrift shop anti-couture, or to have caught her historic Central Park concert in 1967, when she was on the verge of her film career, could only dream about another live encounter with the Brooklyn-born "actress who sings" (her early self-description).
It wasn't until 1994 that Streisand, by then long accustomed to the tight control of the studio, tried out concert touring again, an event that seemed at the time positively cosmos-altering. Naturally, the tour was a triumph and, naturally, it was followed by others. Even after she gave what was advertised as her last public appearance in 2000 at New York's Madison Square Garden, she resumed touring in 2006.
On Tuesday, a document of that 2006 tour makes its first appearance as part of a three-disc DVD set, Streisand: The Concerts. The collection also includes, for the first time on DVD, the 1994 show from Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, which finds the singer in superb vocal shape through a mostly sure-proof sampling of her repertoire, and Putting It Together: The Making of the Broadway Album from 1990.
Those other items are treasurable souvenirs in their own right, but the big news here is the 2006 concert, nicely filmed in Fort Lauderdale with excellent sound. No serious Streisand fan will want to be without it.
From the first notes of the opening song, "Starting Here, Starting Now," the old magic is there. This is the kind of song Streisand was born to sing, as perfectly suited to the timbre and range as to her instinctive way of knowing how to climb a melodic line for maximum expressive reward.
To be sure, a somewhat husky quality emerges throughout the concert when she pumps up the volume. But the voice (she was 64 then) still sounds in remarkably firm shape, as articulate and pitch-sure as ever, and her phrasing almost always rings true.
In "Down With Love," she sounds delightfully free and easy, playing subtly with the tune as the familiar, brilliant Peter Matz arrangement snaps along underneath.
Another golden oldie, Ma Premiere Chanson, a bittersweet song from 1966 with a melody Streisand wrote, would have been more welcome had it not been accompanied with shtick. The introductory bit, where she first tries playing the song on the piano, seemed forced and clunky when I heard her do it at the tour-launching concert in Philadelphia, and it seems just as forced and clunky here.
There are other small disappointments of style or programming. During a reminiscence of Funny Girl, for example, the orchestra plays part of the most haunting song from the Broadway score, "Who Are You Now?" Streisand notes that it didn't make it into the film version of the show, but then doesn't sing it. A wasted opportunity to revisit what still ranks as one of her most touching interpretations.
Still, she does a luscious job with "Funny Girl," a song written expressly for the movie, and she even infuses her trademark "People" with fresh warmth.
It was an inspired idea to bring together a couple of social-message Broadway songs from very different eras, "You've Got to Be Taught" from South Pacific and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods. The result is one of the DVD's highest peaks, as Streisand tellingly mines the lyrics of each and pours out a beautifully molded sound.
Nearly as impressive is her account of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," which retains a surprising amount of the vocal gold that she first spun on this sublime Michel Legrand song decades ago. "I Stayed Too Long at the Fair," a priceless gem from early in the singer's career, emerges with a good deal of poignancy.
"Happy Days Are Here Again" has, by now, lost the sardonic edge that made her deconstruction of the song on her 1963 debut album so startling. Perhaps the cheerier quality behind her performance of it here reflects the singer's sense that her political side would soon come back into power.
Remember, this was 2006, before anyone gave much thought to the "audacity of hope," so it's doubly fun to hear Streisand in a disarming version of "Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific, singing, "I'm stuck, like a dope, with a thing called hope, and I can't get it out of my heart."
An overlong, not overly funny, bit involving a George W. Bush impersonator that was part of the 2006 concert tour when it started, is, thankfully, nowhere to be seen on the DVD, not even as a bonus track.
Too bad the same can't be said for Il Divo, the popular quartet that fuses male models and more or less operatic voices. They turn up every now and then, to no great purpose. But this is why fast-forward was invented.
When, near the end of the show, Streisand turns to "My Shining Hour," a song not previously associated with her, the results are pure magic. Superbly phrased, warm and rich in tone, the performance captures everything that makes Streisand so indelible. And when she sings, "This will be my finest hour 'til I'm with you again," all I can say is, it couldn't be soon enough.
Streisand: The Concerts
(Live Nation/Hip-O Records), three DVDs, $34.98