After revolutionizing the art of the musical variety television special with MY NAME IS BARBRA and COLOR ME BARBRA, Barbra Streisand decided not reuse the demanding one-woman format for her third CBS special - the unfairly mangled vaudeville-tribute THE BELLE OF 14th STREET. Deciding instead on featuring guest stars to share the spotlight, the special would still contain three acts and include another mini-concert as the final segment. Respected actor Jason Robards, vaudeville-era song-and-dance man John Bubbles, and FUNNY GIRL co-star Lee Allen all make appearances in this salute to early 1900's entertainment, which also features authentic period wardrobe (even for the audience members) and song selections appropriate to the era. Critics unanimously regarded the show as an artistic failure, however, it is, in truth, extremely enjoyable when taken as a whole.
After the amusing animated opening credits, Act I of the show opens with the weakest number of the entire special. Jason Robards stumbles through an uninspired performance of "You're the Apple of My Eye," while he and the "Bevy of Beefy Beauties" throw apples into the audience. The number is simply not very entertaining and drags on for far too long. Much better is Barbra's coy rendition of "Alice Blue Gown," which becomes a sexy burlesque striptease as strategically-placed wires begin to remove portions of her clothing. John Bubbles makes his only appearance in the special delivering a fine version of "I'm Going South," although the reason he is wearing a chicken costume is left unexplained. Streisand, Robards, and Lee Allen then perform the spirited novelty song "We're Four Americans" as an Scottish-American singing family (sort of an Irish take on the Von Trapp family), all in a thick Irish dialect.
Act II opens with one of the show's high points. Streisand appears as the heavily-accented German opera singer Madame Schmausen-Schmidt (known as the Nuremberg Nightingale), and sings a rousing semi-comedic rendition of "Leibestraum" in a shockingly strong operatic voice. Through some clever editing, Streisand as Schmausen-Schmidt then duets with a young boy in the audience (also played by Streisand) on a touching version of "Mother Machree." Next, Streisand and Robards play southern Shakespearean actors the Mungers, who deliver a selection from THE TEMPSTt. Robards portrays both Prospero and Caliban, while Streisand appears as both Miranda and Ariel. Although both Streisand and Robards give a respectable presentation of the material, it will probably be totally incomprehensible to viewers who are unfamiliar with the play.
The following third Act concert is really just as exceptional as the closing concert segments of MY NAME IS BARBRA and COLOR ME BARBRA. This time, Barbra, while dressed in a slinky black dress and over-sized hat, sings gorgeous period standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." The highlight of highlights is a stunning melody of "My Buddy," "How About Me," "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "Some of These Days" that will send chills up even the most cynical viewer's spine. Also of special note is rousing "Everybody Loves My Baby," which Streisand has never performed anywhere else. Ending the special on a high note, the closing "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey" (set to animation that corresponds with the show's opening credits) concludes the delightful hour with just the right touch.
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