Elaine Stritch, the actress and cabaret star, in her last engagement at the Café Carlyle before moving to Michigan.
When is it time for a great entertainer to say goodbye to the stage? Watching Elaine Stritch, 88, in the opening-night show of her five-night farewell engagement at the Café Carlyle on Tuesday, I reflected that in cabaret, a genre that venerates the wisdom and experience of great ladies of a certain age, nobody wants to stop. As long as people are willing to pay to see them, why shouldn’t they continue?
A legend like Ms. Stritch, who is moving to Birmingham, Mich., to be near her nephews and nieces, has earned her adorers. In New York’s theatrical-cabaret axis, teeming with larger-than-life personalities, Ms. Stritch is one of the most formidable. Like Carol Channing and Liza Minnelli she epitomizes traditional show business brass and resilience: a “give it all you’ve got” dedication to entertaining. Everyone in the room was keenly aware that this might be the last hurrah of a blazing, cranky, funny stage personality who is, in a word, irreplaceable.
It would be easy for any performer to mistake the wild acclaim she received on Tuesday for a broader vote of confidence despite her frailty, but Ms. Stritch’s physical ailments have caught up with her. She is a diabetic and has suffered a number of falls and small strokes that have eroded her memory. Her feisty spirit and salty humor are more or less intact, but increasingly the right words elude her, and her stamina has diminished.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
The challenge she faced was not lost on her. Ms. Stritch, a recovering alcoholic, confessed that she was so scared before the show that she had had half a drink. In the compelling new documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,”directed by Chiemi Karasawa and having its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month, she says she now allows herself one drink a day. Her current show, “Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out,” was different from any other she has performed with her longtime accompanist, Rob Bowman. This time there were only smidgens of music; the performance consisted almost entirely of Ms. Stritch telling personal anecdotes, cracking jokes and paying tribute to other entertainers. She engaged in a mutually admiring dialogue with Tom Hanks, among the celebrities in an audience that included Tony Bennett, Ms. Minnelli, Martin Short, Michael Feinstein, James Levine and Bernadette Peters.
But when Ms. Stritch opened her mouth to sing, you had no idea what would come out. Her faltering memory has deteriorated so much in the nearly two years since her last Café Carlyle engagement that Mr. Bowman’s sympathetic prompting, which has carried her through many forgetful lapses, was no longer sufficient to cover them. The closest thing to a coherent musical performance was Ms. Stritch’s rendition of “You’re the Pop,” a parody of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.”
For the truly faithful, just being in Ms. Stritch’s presence was enough, but a cabaret performance it was not, and the show’s dearth of music did seem to leave some unsatisfied.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
So let us celebrate the glory that was Elaine Stritch in her prime. For among modern entertainers she is sui generis. In her younger days this strait-laced onetime convent girl with a loud, sometimes foul mouth, was a dazzling, long-legged glamour girl with a hard-shell facade.
As Joanne in the Broadway musical “Company” she refined a lasting archetype: the acerbic, wisecracking tough broad, whose signature song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” is a devastating fusillade of alcoholic bitterness.
A version of that archetype reappeared in 1985 in her strutting, gravelly voiced “Broadway Baby” in “Follies in Concert” at Avery Fisher Hall, a performance that stole the show. In wit and ferocity it was nearly matched by her hard-boiled funny version of “Zip,” from “Pal Joey.” The mouthy attitude with which Ms. Stritch interpreted Mr. Sondheim’s catalog brought a new perspective to the lyrics of “I Feel Pretty” “Every Day a Little Death” and “Send in the Clowns.”
Everything culminated with her acclaimed one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” which opened at the Public Theater in 2001, transferred to Broadway and was revived at Café Carlyle. It revealed her as a ruthlessly honest, often self-deprecating, and ultimately spellbinding storyteller.
Regardless of how well Ms. Stritch can sing and put words together today, Tuesday’s show suggested that the story may not be over. Early in the evening Ms. Stritch insisted that her farewell to New York was not permanent; sooner or later she would return.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 3, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a documentary about Elaine Stritch. It is "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," not "Elaine Stritch: So Shoot Me."