Gleefully mugging and prancing her way from one end of the platform to the other, Carol Burnett was a celebrity first and a performer second at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night. The audience, familiar with her every characteristic--the yodeling high notes, the frothy giggles, the easygoing amiability--loved everything she did.
That was hardly a surprise, since Burnett has been a performer who could do no wrong since she first came to national prominence four decades ago on the Gary Moore television show. In her Hollywood Bowl debut, however, it immediately became clear that Burnett is an entertainer who functions best in a focused arena. Television is clearly the most felicitous venue for her; musical theater almost as good.
But in the wide expanses of the Bowl, Burnett often seemed out of her depth. The diminutive gestures and subtle drolleries that work so well for her on the small screen rarely reached beyond the first few rows of box seats. It remained, instead, for her to rely upon a less dependable aspect of her talent--the ability to tell a story and sell a song.
Burnett's first couple of numbers suggested that her singing might be enough. The amusing "Adelaide's Lament" (from "Guys and Dolls") was delivered in an appropriately broad rendering. And "Little Girls" (from "Annie"), a song Burnett sang in the movie version of the musical, was a convincing character study. But Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," now the overdone anthem for every female singer over 50, became an intensified recitation of lines rather than an emotionally complex tale of survival and triumph.
Burnett's showcase piece--a long medley of musical comedy songs sung in duet with actor Scott Bakula (TV's "Quantum Leap")--was more fascinating in concept than in execution. Bakula's vocal skills appeared to be minimal, and his efforts to sing brief passages in harmony with Burnett verged on disaster.
John Mauceri conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, supportive for the Burnett numbers, more vigorously in salutes to Leonard Bernstein ("Symphonic Dances From West Side Story") and Richard Rodgers ( "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"). The Bernstein number, the most attractive piece on the program, exposed the orchestra's peculiarly ambivalent capacity to generate a strong rhythmic momentum despite ensemble playing that was at best ragged, at worst downright sloppy.