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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Elaine Stritch At Liberty: She's Still Here
directed by George Wolfe
The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street New York, 10003 (212) 239-6200 www.publictheater.org
Reviewed December 10, 2001

Her entrance is theatrical enough. She wears black tights to show off her long legs (which she no doubts worships) and a flimsy white shirt. She looks great. With nothing on the stage except a high stool and some terrific lights that change with her moods, Stritch begins the story of her life right from the beginning of her rigid Catholic upbringing, to the first moments in the big town. There she tramps the streets looking for work as an actress, and there follows a long list of her shows, and her story takes on the usual "and then I wrote..."

To be sure, she was in plenty of hits, and much to the audience's delight, she gives us a taste of them: her famous zip number from "Pal Joey;" "The Ladies Who Lunch" number from "Company;" and of course, the survival song "I'm Still Here" from Steven Sondheim"s "Follies," which always gets the usual screams and whistles; some people even stand up. (a habit with New York audiences)

One of the more interesting things about the show is her observations about some of her colleagues; funny stories about the grand dame of the musical, Ethel Mermen; anecdotes about Noel Coward, and a poignant mention of her husband (I would have liked to know more about that: she considered her marriage of ten years the happiest of her life). She is a good story teller and her remarks about theater, and herself as a performer, are full of humor, and bitter, sweet, self depreciating wise cracks. As for her singing„well that's not what people come to see, or hear. Her theatricality carries the day, her command as a performer, her control of her lines, that's what counts, not the sound of a voice that is almost gone, but not quite.

However, I did not appreciate her tales about Marlon Brando and Richard Burton; they were insignificant and unfunny, and her nasty imitation of Marge Champion and Gloria Swanson was unprofessional, but the audience did not seem to mind. Stritch is the kind of show business performer who has a following; everything she does is O. K. by them. She brings back nostalgia, and what is thought of as the "good old times," when musicals were musicals, when actors did show stopping numbers. Whether they were really good is another matter. But now after four decades, Stritch still has an unusual vitality, a commanding presence, and plenty of wit. Judging from the audience's enjoyment and her rave notices, one can easily see why Elaine Stritch is no longer at liberty. Her next stop is Broadway.

Margaret Croyden's book "Conversations with Peter Brook" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the Fall.

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