Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005


Through October 29 at Café Carlyle
Madison Avenue at 76th Street
Music charge $105 to $125 depending
on night
Dinner is required and will be served
from 6:30 p.m.
(212.744.1600; thecarlyle.com)

Photo by Denise Winters
Elaine Stritch, the woman who was told she would go nowhere, is singing this month and next at the Café Carlyle.

Keeping the room in Stritches

By Jerry Tallmer

“I don’t get many love songs,” said Elaine Stritch from a high stool facing a preview audience in the Café Carlyle, where she was about to start a seven-week gig through October 29. “I’m not complaining, I’m boasting,” said the mistress of the tough, the bitter, the Sondheimian.

And then she proceeded to bring the house down with a love song—“That’s Him,” music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash—that reminds her of John Day, the husband whom death snatched from her in 1982. And she did it again, later, when the amplification went out—“No problem!”—during her powerhouse rendition of “Fifty Percent,” an exquisite number by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Billy Goldenberg, as if from the lips of a woman who has unbelievably found a new love after the death of her husband a year and a half earlier.

This time the house rose to its feet amid shouts of “Wow!” and a general appreciative roar.

“I had one great marriage in my life,” said Stritch—the tart, funny, acerbic Stritch—“but not before several out-of-town tryouts.” She catalogues a few of those tryouts, including one chap on whose tombstone she would have carved: “Here lies Gary Pudney … about everything” and, at another time and place, “a juvenile 17 years my junior … [who] was romancing me to further his fucking career.”

Innocent Stritch pause.

“I can say fucking. The fucking phones. The fucking traffic. I just can’t say fucking when it really means fucking.”

As her second encore, she closed out the hour and a half with breathtaking restraint (yes!) on a yet more beautiful love song, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Amazing.”

But this woman, this Stritch—in “my 60th year in New York”—is what’s amazing. This “perfectly marvelous girl, in this perfectly marvelous room” (thank you, Kander & Ebb). She stands there in a long-sleeved white blouse, black jumper, back straight, fists clenching and unclenching, left hand on hip, right hand steering, fingers jabbing air when not pointing this way, that way, arms at climax thrown wide, and she delivers.

I don’t know if the nuns back in Birmingham, Michigan, were drilling the posture into young Elaine the way Miss Fisher, my mother’s once-upon-a-time governess, drilled it into my mother, pressing an umbrella against the small of the back from the crooks of both elbows, but those Michigan nuns sure got at least this part of the job done. As for the rest of it…

She sings, Stritch does, and tells stories, old chestnuts, among them some old chestnuts that one has never heard before, including one involving a sort of TV talk-show beauty contest between two opera greats a bit along in years, Lily Pons and Mary Garden, that climaxes in the line: “From now on it’s zzzee lemons.”

There’s also one that is not quite that nice or funny, about Frank Sinatra and Sinatra’s long memory for anger. Fifteen years after Sinatra and Stritch had traded verbal jabs at a party chez Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in Beverly Hills where Elaine had boozily proclaimed, “You can say what you want, but the son of a bitch can sing,” Sinatra coldly dismissed her at the Stork Club in New York.

“I remember you,” he said. “You’re the girl who’s going no place.”

Well, that girl went to London to star in Noel Coward’s “Sail Away,” and she also has a couple of stories about the Noel Coward who adored her and deplored her—her excesses, that is—and called her Stritchie. One of the moments pivots on the f-word, so we’ll skip that, this time around. Another follows a party on a boat on the Thames during which she’d got rather plastered. “By the way, Stritchie,” Coward advises her, “throwing champagne glasses into the Thames went out in ’29.”

It might be noted that Elaine Stritch has been a bone-dry reformed alcoholic for many years now, and took the occasion to so inform another onetime big drinker during a Kennedy Center Honors visit to his White House.

“I’ve never done a cabaret act before and got paid for it,” said theater and songdom’s Elaine Stritch at this tense, crucial (for her) preview, where she was (and will hereafter be) most ably supported by her music director Rob Bowman at the piano, Lou Bruno on bass, Dave Gale on trumpet, brother Jack Gale on trombone, Paul Pizzuti on drums, and Les Scott on reeds.

“You know what they say,” she said. “The circus is either in town or it isn’t.”

At the Café Carlyle these nights, it sure is.

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