DVD review: Streisand/The Concerts

OK, there are a few moments that threaten to reach Celine-level tackiness — mostly in Streisand’s duets with the creepy tenor quartet Il Divo during the 2006 concert — and to her credit she actually seems a little embarrassed by the grandiosity of it all. But what stands out are the smaller moments, when her interpretive gifts shine. She finds fresh meaning in pop standards like “My Man,” and does the same with songs she’s performed so often you don’t think she could possibly bear to sing them again, like “People” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” a version breathtaking in its precise phrasing and deeply felt sentiment. She even tackles the Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut “Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific, lending it an older-but-wiser ruefulness.

Seemingly foretelling the Obama years, she leads from “Optimist” into a riff on the importance of hope, and talks about how we’re no longer blue states or red states but the United States. That’s about as political as she gets in the 2006 concert, though, except for worrying out loud that she’s in a red state (the Ft. Lauderdale crowd assures her she’s found a pocket of blue). A famous incident in which an audience member threw water at her, apparently a reaction to a George W. Bush impersonator who was part of the show, is not shown here. The 1994 DVD does include a politicized rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” though, accompanied by a photomontage showing major achievements of the Clinton years.

Part of the fun in both of the concert videos is the celebrity-spotting. She gets ‘em all; the Arrowhead concert in particular is a who’s who of Hollywood royalty, including Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Shirley MacLaine and Dustin Hoffman, plus Streisand exes Elliott Gould and Don Johnson. Streisand herself looks Hollywood gawjis at the 1994 concert, and given that she had been away from the concert stage for so many years at this point, her elegant composure makes it seem (to paraphrase the concert’s opening number from Sunset Boulevard) as if she’d never said goodbye.

Two of the best cuts on the DVD are bonus tracks from the 2006 concert: a pristine “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me,” which she’d last sung when she was 18 at the NY nightclub Bon Soir, and a fearless “When the Sun Comes Out,” which she hadn’t tackled since famously forgetting the words during her 1967 concert in Central Park. She’d been scared to sing it again, she says, but now? Nah.

It doesn’t seem like she’ll be saying goodbye any time soon.

The new 3-DVD set Streisand The Concerts is being marketed as the perfect Mother’s Day gift, and it’s true that in the two live concerts captured here — "Live at Arrowhead Pond/July 1994," from a multi-city tour that marked her first public concert appearances in 27 years, and "Live in Concert 2006," recorded in Fort Lauderdale — there are more than a few moms (and a few gentlemen, too) swooning in the audience. But this package is of interest not just to fanatic Babs fans but to anyone interested in the art of singing.

Because what this set confirms is just how extraordinary a singer Barbra Streisand is. You knew that, of course, but over the years the sheer size of her public persona — the mannerisms, the speechifying, the self-aggrandizement — has tended to obscure the talent. Tracing the arc of her career from the groundbreaking ’60s TV specials (excerpted here on the third DVD), it’s clear that her musical intelligence was not only there from the beginning but has only improved over time. It’s also fascinating to see the development of Streisand the entertainer, from wacky ingénue to ultra-polished diva to the woman we see in 2006 — relaxed, open, wryly humorous. And all the way through there’s That Voice, with its tonal purity, bang-on pitch and astonishing power; even at 64 (her age at the 2006 concert) she can still hold a note like nobody else, soaring up to a big finish that leaves audiences awestruck.

Celine Dion, eat your heart out.

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