NEW YORK — AFTER months of hoopla and publicity surrounding $350 tickets, phone-line tie-ups when tickets went on sale, and notorious scalpers, one would think that actually seeing Barbra Streisand in concert would be something of an anticlimax. It wasn't.
Last week, the singer made her hometown return to New York, playing her first show here since the Central Park concert 27 years ago. Before the concert at Madison Square Garden began, the chief entertainment was celebrity watching: Barbara Walters, David Dinkins, Anthony Quinn, Alan King, Liza Minnelli, and of course the Trumps, were all seated near the stage. This was certainly the best-dressed crowd that has ever been seen at this arena, and the combined incomes of this audience would probably exceed that of the European Union.
The whole affair had the air of a theatrical event, complete with an elegant set that resembled a 19th-century sitting room, a 64-piece orchestra conducted by none other than Marvin Hamlisch (``He doesn't need this job,'' Streisand unnecessarily pointed out), and an overture. The singer, looking beautiful in a tasteful white gown, emerged to a tumultuous ovation, and then, finally, the real reason for all the excitement began: She sang.
Streisand began with a perfect choice, ``We Never Said Goodbye,'' from Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``Sunset Boulevard,'' and the mind reeled at the possibility of seeing her in that show.
Granted, the hysteria would never have occurred if Streisand had not refrained from public performance for so long. But there is no denying that she possesses one of, if not the most, beautiful and expressive singing voices in popular music. Hers is a magnificent instrument, a fact reaffirmed by her breathtaking control in a live performance. Every note, every color of her voice, seemed effortlessly achieved, as if it had been labored over for hours in a recording studio. Even if one is not a fan of her material (and much of it leaves me cold), her vocal precision is tremendous.
In a sense, this control produces a certain lack of spontaneity or passion that can be almost monotonous, and in a strictly entertainment sense Streisand's show is not as much fun as, say, those of her sister divas Liza Minnelli or Bette Midler. The stiffness of the proceedings was not helped by a strictly written script from which she rarely deviated (a huge teleprompter, visible from many seats, demonstrated that she barely missed a word).
The show is loosely structured as an autobiographical therapy session, complete with a Viennese-accented psychiatrist. But none of that mattered when she tore into the obligatory hits: ``Evergreen,'' ``You Don't Bring Me Flowers,'' ``The Way We Were,'' and ``People'' (that song's composer, Jule Styne, was seated in the front row).
Streisand has had her greatest commercial success in recent years with her two Broadway-themed albums, and the concert contained a generous proportion of theater songs, including a number from ``Guys and Dolls,'' which she sang as a ``duet'' with Marlon Brando in a clip from the film; Sondheim's ``Not While I'm Around,'' sung to a succession of photographs of her son, Jason; and, as a finale, the soaring ``Somewhere,'' from ``West Side Story.'' Her delivery was problematic only when she tackled bluesier material in such songs as ``Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'' and ``The Man That Got Away.''
The second half of the show was weighed down with her by-now familiar political rhetoric. She reprised her legendary slow rendition of ``Happy Days Are Here Again,'' accompanied by a photo montage of events and headlines (``Roe vs. Wade Affirmed'') of which she approves. But Streisand also displayed an affable charm and sense of humor, belying the nervousness she must have felt. Bantering with the crowd (``Don't strain yourself,'' she admonished to a particularly ardent scream of appreciation) and joking about herself (``I could have been the first real Jewish princess,'' she said about a meeting with Prince Charles), the singer was relaxed and appealing.
Not a princess, but certainly a queen, and the emotional impact of this New York homecoming will never be repeated. Streisand is performing two shows at the Garden on June 30 and July 10, and then winds up her tour on the West Coast. And that, she is saying, will be it (except for the inevitable recording and video). One hopes that this will not be the case, but if it is, she'll be going out a winner.