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Barbra Streisand, still gunning for 'Gypsy,' samples some Stephen Sondheim at Staples Center

Barbra Streisand, still gunning for 'Gypsy,' samples some Stephen Sondheim at Staples Center
Barbra Streisand kicked off her tour in Los Angeles on Tuesday by singing from six decades of hit albums. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Barbra Streisand didn't give us a foretaste of her Rose in "Gypsy," the classic musical about a formidable stage mother and her showbiz-bound daughters that she has been trying like Sisyphus to turn into a cinematic swan song for herself.

There was no "Rose's Turn" (too much shvitzing) or "Have an Egg Roll, Mr. Goldstone" (a little goofy out of context) or any other number that might smack of an audition to Hollywood dealmakers.

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But at her Staples Center concert on Tuesday, she did perform a trio of Stephen Sondheim songs that made you wish she might still find a way to realize her long-aborning movie dream, even if the musical will inevitably be Streisand-ized. (That sound you're hearing is book-writer Arthur Laurents, who ran hot and cold about the idea, turning over in his grave.)

The concert — schmaltzily titled "The Music … the Mem'ries … the Magic!" — included songs from her remarkable six decades of No. 1 albums.  She launched right into "Memories" (officially known as "The Way We Were") and saved "People" for an encore, a song that provided a nice salve for the handful of concertgoers offended by the jabs she took at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (After noting that human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA, she cracked that Trump represents the 0.1%.)

Famous friends including Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Jamie Foxx and a game if vocally unsteady Seth MacFarlane joined her onstage to perform renditions of duets they made on either her last album "Partners" or her soon-to-be-released recording "Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway." Their attitudes were properly worshipful and hers was what could best be described as maternally flirtatious.

Her fans, easily mistaken for California Democratic National Convention delegates, ate it up. A Streisand concert isn't merely an occasion to hear one of the great voices in the history of American song but to encounter a personality that has the dimensions of a myth.

Streisand's pet causes — climate change, women's heart health, gun violence, the Syrian refugee crisis — were as much a part of her patter as her hilarious diva asides.

"Next time, can I get a straw?" she hollered to whoever was listening backstage when she needed a sip of water. A lost earring had her spying her cleavage for the missing accessory. Moving from one chair to another à la Sarah Bernhardt on one of her last international tours, she worried that she was going to rip her dress, a gorgeously deconstructed Glinda the Good Witch frock that made her look every inch the classic Hollywood movie queen.

Barbra Streisand at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
Barbra Streisand at Staples Center on Tuesday night. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

None of this was incidental to her handling of Sondheim songs. Her interpretation of "Being Alive" — a song in which the protagonist from "Company" comes to understand that not committing himself to another person is a kind of death-in-life — was informed by her own lifelong romantic quest, which she has never been shy to share with us.

"Losing My Mind" brought to mind an alternative Streisand, not the one nestled in Malibu with husband James Brolin, but a woman brought to the brink by desperate longing. "Children Will Listen" was suffused with her loving, liberal concern for the state of the world — a sentiment epitomized in her paraphrase of a remark by Frederick Douglass declaring that it is easier to praise a child than fix a broken man.

The arrangements of these songs lent them a pop flavor that made them less vocally demanding. She was in better voice than when I saw her at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012  — climate control, not surprisingly, suits her — but time has limited the range and suppleness of her instrument.

It hasn't lost that nasal distinctiveness and strain of autumnal melancholy, however. I couldn't help thinking of a great athlete who, though long out of competition, has kept in shape. Streisand's voice is like Steffi Graf's forehand — it might not overwhelm young rivals today but it is still awe-inspiring, a gift from the gods.

Yet what separates Streisand is the way she personalizes the character of a song. Her persona assists her in drawing out the spiritual and psychological essence of lyrics. She mines herself for meaning. And her razor sharp intelligence permits no line to go unturned.

Sondheim identified this capacity of Streisand's in a note on the song "Send in the Clowns" that can be found in his anthology "Finishing the Hat": "One of those fine singers who recorded it was Barbra Streisand, a performer who examines the lyrics she sings very carefully, and who questioned the dramatic connection between the two choruses (that is, the moment leading to the stanza that begins with the second iteration of "Isn't it rich?").

Sondheim, recognizing that this was "a logical request rather than the whim of a diva," supplied a transition. No, not even a notoriously prickly genius could deny her genuine engagement with the work.

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Streisand is easily caricatured but no one can touch her. She may not soar the way she once did, but wisdom wrung from experience has deepened some of the more poignant hues of her palette.

Hollywood, green-light her "Gypsy." No star has earned the right to play Rose more than she has. With the right lighting — and, rest assured, she'll have the right lighting — she can pass for 50 easily. History beckons. Her "Rose's Turn" finale is guaranteed to be one of the more dazzling nervous breakdowns ever seen on the big screen.

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