There may be some method to the madness of Barbra Streisand recently quickening her touring pace to the point that there are only four years between shows now. “It’s funny that I always seem to go on these little tours during election seasons,” she said during the kickoff of a nine-city outing Tuesday night at L.A.’s Staples Center. “And this one is a doozy, isn’t it?”
The answer would be yes, on both counts — both the election, which spurred several predictably barbed anti-Trump comments during the opening night asides, and the “little tour” itself, which, however limited in length, offers fans who do make it to one of those nine cities the most rewarding set list of any trek in Streisand’s career.
The only customers sent home from Staples anything short of sated and thrilled? Maybe only people who need people to cast their lot with the Republican nominee or climate-change skeptics (Streisand offered a pointed pro-“science” aside) or the tiny portion of fans who might have been unaware at this late date that “Happy Days Are Here Again” is only going to be sung in honor of Democratic presidents (or presumptive presidents).
Midway through the first half, Streisand brought out magician and mentalist Lior Suchard, quipping that “the only person whose mind he can’t read is Donald Trump’s, because he doesn’t have one.” Making an addendum to the script on the monitors, she added, “He’s putting his foot in his mouth every day now, so I’m so happy.”
Two hours later, going into the show’s penultimate wower “People,” she went into a science riff and marveled at a study on human DNA that “showed that no matter what the color of your skin or where you were born … our genetic makeup is 99.9 percent identical to every other person on the face of the earth. Isn’t that incredible? The other .1 percent is Donald Trump.”
And then, wrapping it up with “Happy Days,” Streisand noted that she’d sung the bittersweetly hopeful standard for presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton, “and I hope that in a few months I’ll be singing it for the next President Clinton.” Suddenly worried that anyone might take the “again” in the song’s refrain to mean that a Clinton presidency would be a needed administrative cleanout, she again went off-script to add, “By the way, I love Obama, so this is only to make sure we win this election.”
If this makes the show sound like a rally, it was — a Barbra Streisand for God rally, with political asides taking up only a small percentage of a show that did nothing to alter the deifying assignations of a crowd that showed up to worship a star that guest duet partner Babyface called “arguably the greatest singer of all time.” In what could only be disappointing news for right-wing sites that might have loved nothing more than a YouTubed flub, Streisand proved that she can get away with being a little bit potentially polarizing because, at 74, she’s never been more on top of her vocal game. That’s improbably, and, with apologies to Babyface, almost inarguable.
Compared with the set lists from her other tours since she resumed touring in the ’90s after a three-decade layoff, this one is the stuff of Streisand-holics’ dreams, with only six selections in the 22-song set overlapping with her Hollywood Bowl show from 2012 or last appearance at Staples in 2006. The phrase “deep tracks” may not mean as much to the average diva buff as it does to a rock fan, but this is her deep tracks tour, with six numbers from older albums or soundtracks that she’s never performed even once in concert before, in addition to four tunes from a forthcoming album that were also getting their live premiere.
If the 55-minute closing set was terrifically random, there was a design to the 70-minute first set: “Marty [Erlichman, her manager] told me that I had 10 No. 1 albums across six decades. … It gave me a theme for the first act, so I’m going to do a song from each one of these albums — not necessarily the most famous ones.” You could say that again: The Carole King-penned “Being at War With Each Other” hasn’t been much on anyone’s radar since it was released in 1974, but its then-topicality provided a launch pad for an overhead photo montage that spanned from the ’60s on up to stills that balanced the police shooting of a black man with a shot memorializing the killing of three officers in Baton Rouge.
Streisand is not perverse enough to have that King track be the sole representative from her The Way We Were album, of course, so the show did begin with the title track (“Save the best for first, right?” she quipped). Her instincts also came in handy when it came to shoehorning a trio of more dated tunes into a just-right medley: Everyone wants to hear “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” but unless Donna Summer is going to come back from the dead, no one wants to hear more than two and a half minutes of it.
Along with the deep-tracks vibe, Streisand also went borderline-rockist in devoting much of the first act to the history of album cover art, or at least her album cover art, with charming complaints about the bump in her nose having been airbrushed out of that Way We Were cover (she claimed Sony is still reneging on its promises to restore it on the CD). As for the steamy A Star Is Born cover photo in the naked clutches of Kris Kristofferson: “If you’re wondering what I was wearing during that shoot… it was musk.” (No rim shot needed from her orchestral-sounding band of about a dozen players and singers.)
The 55-minute second act started off seemingly devoted to previewing Streisand’s Aug. 26 album of duets, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway, with two of her studio guests, Jamie Foxx and Seth MacFarlane, showing up in person and a third, Anthony Newley, making a video appearance from the great beyond. A non-duet deluxe bonus track, Stephen Sondheim’s wrenching “Losing My Mind,” also got its premiere, with some silences in the final stretch quiet enough to hear the Staples AC blasting. (That wasn’t often the case: Earlier in the show, Streisand kept telling appreciative yellers, “I see, this is the audience participation part where we have a conversation” — and they picked up on the repeated hints about as well as that woman with the baby at the Trump rally.)
Foxx picked up MVP honors — or at least the first spontaneous standing ovation — for going toe-to-toe with Streisand on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” suggesting that the actor/singer has a great career ahead of him in musical theater, whenever he decides to settle for a 20th of the money.
But eventually Act 2 veered into oldies-she’s-never-done-before-and-never-will-again territory too, most notably with a one-two punch of forgotten numbers from one of her unforgotten movies. Streisand told the tale of hearing Liza Minnelli sing “Isn’t This Better” at a D.C. tribute and admitting to Minnelli that she had no idea how she was connected to the settling-for-less ballad, only to be informed she sang it in “Funny Lady.” Now clued in, Streisand made it seem like a standard here and, in a real the-Brice-is-right call, followed it with another obscurity from the same soundtrack, the brassier “How Lucky Can You Get.”
Riffing on Fanny Brice’s unhappier moments, Streisand set up what seemed to be a speech about how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, then departed from the script on the prompter to seemingly improvise: “Let me tell you what it’s like: fan-f—ing-tastic!”
That’s a word (two words? three?) probably any Streisand buff would apply to this flawlessly sequenced show, which far outstrips other outings where she might have been too reliant on greatest hits (though few were missing here) or whatever new album of standards or Broadway covers she might have been pushing at the time. And whatever regimen she did to get in shape for the mini-tour — “I’m sorry to keep doing this to my pants, but I’ve lost a bit of weight, so they keep falling down” counts as a serious #humblebrag — it seemed as if the lion’s share of it must have gone into wrapping her vocal cords in some new kind of alchemic butter. If you heard the slightest hint of a rasp in those 74-year-old cords — and the slightest hint was all you could strain to hear — it counted as character in a set of pipes that can still, against all odds, climb ev’ry mountain.
The only question mark of the show: what that mentalist was doing out onstage for 10 minutes, as remarkable as his “mind-reading” bits with audience members seemed to be. Knowing how little is left up to chance or randomness in Streisand’s world, you might conclude that maybe the real reason for his appearance was just to set up that Trump punchline. If he could really read the crowd’s collective mind, the scroll he unveiled might have read: “officially dying happy.”
The Way We Were
Being at War With Each Other
Everything Must Change
Medley: Stoney End/Woman in Love/No More Tears (Enough is Enough)
Evergreen (Babyface duet)
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Papa, Can You Hear Me?
Pure Imagination (Seth McFarlane duet)
Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)? (Anthony Newley video duet)
Losing My Mind
Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Jamie Foxx duet)
Isn’t This Better
How Lucky Can You Get
With One More Look at You
Children Will Listen
Don’t Rain on My Parade
Happy Days Are Here Again