"IT'S HARD to have stage fright when, like, there's no stage!"

That was Barbra Streisand last Saturday night at NYC's tiny club, Village Vanguard. The Village Vanguard is the kind of artistically reputable, physically dinky spots the great star played back in the early '60s, when she sang for practically pennies and -- if she was lucky -- her suppers. (Barbra never actually performed at the Vanguard -- she auditioned to open for Miles Davis but didn't get the gig!)

Streisand returned, for real, to the Vanguard for a one-night-only stint to promote her latest album, "Love is the Answer," produced by Diana Krall.

The event was also an answer to about 100 fans' prayers. These were contest winners from around the world who were happy to be squeezed into the club, just to hear La Divina sing. Well, not only did they get Barbra, they were squeezed against such as Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Donna Karan and other Streisand intimates such as Barry Diller, David Geffen, composers Marilyn and Alan Bergman and the enduring Marty Erlichman, who has been Streisand's manager since 1961.

So, how was Barbra in this intimate setting, backed by a simple jazz quartet, holding an old-fashioned microphone with a wire? (Streisand herself joked about the mike, but it was surely her choice to use it. Nobody springs any surprises on Barbra.) She was ... sublime.

Streisand's voice has not suffered much over the years, despite the fact that she doesn't exercise those golden vocal chords. She has admitted to some last-minute warm-ups right before recording or beginning a tour, but otherwise, she just opens her mouth and out come those famous tones, ravishing, if inevitably matured and deeper. But at the Vanguard something truly incredible happened. Years slipped away from her voice. Maybe it was the soulful, jazzy, tender material, most of which was from the album. Maybe it was the size of the room, so much different than hearing her in huge concert halls and stadiums, amplified to the max.

Whatever it was, Barbra sounded like the girl on her earliest albums, not only pitch perfect, but totally invested in her material, fresh. There was a difference, however -- her having lived! Experience has ripened her art, enhances every note. She has always been in the great tradition of singer-actors, artists who give a performance in song. Well, on Saturday night, Barbra Streisand gave her best dramatic performance since "Nuts." Her renditions of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "If You Go Away" were astonishing. If one could hand out an Oscar for singing, Streisand would surely be holding her third golden guy.

She did perform a few numbers that are not on the album -- "Evergreen" (dedicated to Bill Clinton, and her introduction of him brought a mist to the eyes of the former president), "My Funny Valentine," "Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered" and winding up with "The Way We Were." Her best previous versions of these songs were bettered that evening. Unlike some others who demand this or that in a no-nonsense manner, Streisand's oft-criticized perfectionism results in actual ... perfection! If you can't stand the excellence, stay out of Barbra's kitchen.

LATER, Barbra, accompanied by her super-handsome hubby James Brolin, popped into the Louis XVI Suite at the Waldorf Astoria, where press had gathered to watch a live feed of the show. (And to feed off a luscious buffet of desserts.) She circulated enthusiastically, and didn't seem nearly as shy and hesitant as she can be, when facing a room full of strangers.

She looked fabulous. Seeing her I was reminded of an article I read recently about Jennifer Aniston. It declared that what all women wanted was to be tiny; no matter the number on the scale, it was the appearance of tiny-ness that was most valued. Miss Aniston has achieved that. And, so has Miss Streisand. She wore a loose black top, with a lacy neckline, but it didn't appear to be concealing anything that was not tiny. Her arms were lithe and smooth -- the famously beautiful, manicured hands in constant expressive movement. Her legs and backside, encased in formfitting black pants were as slim as those of an adolescent frolicking on the Disney Channel. She did, almost immediately, have a bit of a nibble on some of the sweets provided, but she could have scarfed down every pastry in the joint and not given it a second thought.

And, whether it can be attributed to love (which as her album insists, is the answer), good genes, staying out of the sun, or a daily multivitamin, Streisand appeared downright dewy and girlish that night -- a pore-less, flawless complexion.

IN A coarse, uncivil, loud, over-hyped, under-talented world of "stars" and "celebrities" Barbra Streisand remains reassuringly constant. She is a genius, an original, and still the greatest star. By far.

OH, AN insider at the Vanguard told me that all the celebs on hand to worship Barbra were very nice. But "the most gracious were the Clintons. And they left a whopping tip!"

 

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