Steven Brinberg celebrates Barbra’s 70th (with friends)
She’s been at it for nearly 70 years now-and he’s been doing it since 1993.
Get your mind out of the gutter, boys. We’re talking about the origin story of Mrs. James Brolin (aka "Funny Girl," aka "Yentl," aka Barbra Streisand) and her cabaret doppelganger.
Steven Brinberg hasn’t been roaming the earth for as many decades as Streisand has-but he’s been walking in her shoes (and wearing her distinctive hair and clothes) for almost two decades.
No, Brinberg’s "Simply Barbra" act-part tribute, part affectionate parody, part showbiz satire-is not the real thing. But as anyone who’s seen him in concert can tell you, it’s an incredible simulation.
On April 23, Brinberg and Babs touch down in midtown for one night only, as part of Birdland Jazz Club’s excellent "Broadway at Birdland" concert series (curated by the altruistic and talented host of that venue’s Monday night "Jim Caruso’s Cast Party").
Brinberg’s Simply Barbra in ’70 Girl, 70!’ celebrates the prolific diva’s longevity with, appropriately enough, songs she sang in the 1970s. Longtime Brinberg collaborator Christopher Denny serves as musical director, The guests include Corey Mach (from the cast of "Godspell"), Karl Warden from ("How to Succeed") and... wait for it... Marilyn Maye!
Sharing the spotlight
When EDGE rang Brinberg recently to talk about this upcoming gig, he was busy chatting up his special guests... which struck us an odd display of modesty, for a man who’s built a nice little empire portraying a notorious control freak (Babs doesn’t tend to share the gauze-draped spotlight via duets, you know).
Too harsh? Sorry. It’s tempting, and easy, and kinda fun, to dig at Streisand for the popular notion that she’s a testy perfectionist who keeps her distance. So why do we love her?
"She seems aloof," Brinberg notes, "But deep down," he reasons, "she’s this girl from Brooklyn. A lot of people think, ’That could be me, too.’ " Meaning, he says, that beyond the frozen topsoil, one gets the sense that had she not gone into show business, Streisand could be that sassy lady at the checkout counter or on the corner stoop. And as is often the way with such neighborhood characters, that first impression of bitterness is just the tip of a nonthreatening iceberg.
"She can be seen as frosty," Brinberg admits, "but I think she’s just shy rather than aloof. If you look at her earliest interviews...she’s warm on the inside and perhaps chilly on the outside."
That endearing contrast, Brinberg notes, is at the core of his take on Streisand. When interacting with an audience member who’s sitting a little too close (as in the style in the cabaret rooms Brinberg frequently plays), "I say [as her], ’You’re sitting so close, you can practically touch me... but don’t.’ It’s the opposite of some entertainers, like Liza and Bette Midler...’Come to me.’ She’s not unlike Peggy Lee, who could stand in the center of the stage and draw people in."
Satiric, but not mean
So Brinberg brings to the table, along with his spot on vocal recreation, a satirical tone he describes as, "never mean." That means, for Brinberg’s Barbra, no crossing of the eyes and oversized novelty shop nose. But there’s a strong undercurrent of sharp satire during his patter.
"I introduce a love song and say, ’You never forget your first kiss, your first million, your first hit.’ When I began [portraying Streisand], she was just starting her concert career. Now, I’m kind of required to make some age jokes about her age... but what I maintain," says Brinberg, "is she [Streisand] doesn’t look any different at 70 than Rosalind Russell when she did ’Gypsy’ at 50. Women like Jane Fonda and Barbra look like they’re in their 50s."
With seventh-decade Streisand as Mama Rose in mind, Brinberg says he’s added "Some People" to the act, in addition to musts such as "People" or "The Way we Were." What audiences may not come expecting, he notes, are dead-on impressions of Barbra doing dead-on impressions. In one routine, Brinberg says, "Barbra talks about ’Alfie’ and says how she recorded it after finding out that 700 other people recorded it. So she went into the vaults and found their recordings. I do Barbra doing Eartha Kitt and Cher singing ’Alfie.’ "
Brinberg’s Cher has proved so popular, he’s had requests to do a whole show around her. "The only problem," he says, "is that the Cher has such a big sense of humor about herself," it practically negates the purpose of doing send-up.
It’s probably better to stick with Barbra-considering the fact that she seems to spend more time sculpting her image rather than clawing at it. Still, the diva must have a sense of humor. How else would you explain the fact that Brinberg was hired (by Streisand’s "people") to appear (as Streisand) at Donna Karan’s 60th birthday party?
Brinberg says the flattering gesture on her part was a vote of dream gig, and a vote of confidence that confirmed something he’d suspected for years. "I’m pretty sure her people became aware of me pretty quickly," he says of his act. "Her record label has spies... and I’ve been doing these shows with Marvin Hamlisch, and he’s very close to her. So by the time this Donna Karen thing happened, they knew to call me."
So he showed up (in a Donna Karen top), armed with some notes on performance that trickled down to him from the very lips of Barbra herself. Word got back to him that word got back to her about how well it all went...but as of this writing, there’s been no face-to-face. "I’m still waiting for the historic meeting," he says hopefully.
Maybe they’ll duet at Brinberg’s inevitable "Simply Barbra, in 80 Girl, 80!"
Simply Barbra in ’70 Girl, 70!’ A Birthday Celebration Concert
will be performed Monday, April 23, 7pm at Birdland (315 West 44th Street, btw. 8th & 9th Avenues.). $30 cover plus $10 food/drink minimum. For info/reservations, call 212-581-3080 or visit birdlandjazz.com. Also visit the Simply Barbra website.