By: Paulanne Simmons
In Elaine Stritch: Still Here, Jay Malsky’s solo show, directed by Zak Sommerfield at the Fringe, Malsky tries to capture the certain something that made Elaine Stritch such a quintessential Broadway diva. Of course he can’t, and he doesn’t. But Malsky does succeed in giving us a few glimpses into Stritch’s life and her performing style.
Dressed in Stritch’s iconic long, white oxford shirt and black tights, he tells a familiar story; indeed, Stritch was very open about her personal struggles. She was an alcoholic and a diabetic, not a great combination, even if you are a legendary diva. She also lost her husband, actor John Bay, after ten years of marriage. But somehow she managed to live to the ripe age of 89, performing almost until the very end.
With Keith Rubin at the piano as Stritch’s musical director, Rob Bowman, Malsky sings that signature song, "I’m Still Here," as well as "Ladies Who Lunch," "Rose’s Turn," "The Trolley Song" and a few others. The patter between songs is often delicious, filled with Stritch’s raucous, irreverent humor. Malsky certainly knows how to deliver a line à la Stritch.
But when an actor performs in drag, either he has to totally embody the gender and the character of the person he is portraying, or else he has to underscore the illusion, making it more than apparent that he is, in fact, very much himself under the makeup and dress. Malsky achieves neither the emotional depth of the former nor the tongue-in-cheek humor of the latter. We are always aware that this is not the sexy and saucy Stritch, but we don’t have the impression this is what Malsky had in mind.
As with so may shows of this genre, Elaine Stritch: Still Here presents Stritch at the end of her career. This gives Malsky the opportunity of letting the star reflect on her life. But it does not present her in top singing form.
It’s something of a mystery why so many writers think we all enjoy watching talented performers flub their lines, take too many drinks (Billie Holiday), too many pills (Judy Garland) or in Stritch’s case take one too
many drinks while injecting herself with insulin. Is it because we can relate or because we don’t have to? Elaine Stritch: Still Here is often quite enjoyable. But it’s hard to leave the theater feeling happy.
Elaine Stritch: I’m Still Here at VENUE #4: Spectrum, 121 Ludlow Street, through Aug. 29, www.fringenyc.org.