Vaudeville Revue Format Has High Points But Still Remains a Letdown
After her first two specials, Barbra Streisand threw caution to the wind with her third CBS-TV special, an idiosyncratic departure called "The Belle of 14th Street", a full-fledged tribute to turn-of the-last-century vaudeville of which she is just one of several performers on hand. Not seen since its original airdate in October 1967, the program is not nearly as bad as its reputation claims, and Streisand and her creative team (which unfortunately excludes Dwight Hemion and Peter Matz this time) deserve credit for taking a risk in producing this old-fashioned variety entertainment. All the period detail, including the audience, has been recreated with surprising authenticity, and the overall tone is actually more nostalgic than satirical. This may be part of the problem viewers had with the special at the time since there is no context provided for why vaudeville would be relevant for a contemporary audience, especially during the Vietnam War era.
The bigger problem is pacing and the distracting involvement of guest stars. The redoubtable Jason Robards actually opens the revue with a chorus of hefty showgirls on "You're the Apple of My Eye", and later, he and Streisand perform an overlong though enthusiastic 11-minute version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". Legendary tap dancer John Bubbles shows up for a number dressed inexplicably in a half-chicken costume. Streisand performs "Lieberstraum" as a semi-daft German opera diva and then duets with herself as a young boy on "Mother Machree". She even allows a comic striptease by trick wire as she sings "Alice Blue Gown". Regardless, Streisand performs some rare standards beautifully, especially in the last segment when she covers "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and a lovely medley of "My Buddy" and "How About Me?". On one hand, it is an audacious show that does a fine job replicating a bygone era, even though on the other hand, it doesn't provide the optimal showcase for Streisand's talents.
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