Like Butter! Simply Barbra Breezes Into the Art House

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by Steve Desroches

Performing as Barbra Streisand has taken Steven Brinberg all over the world, meeting all kinds of people. With impeccable movements and costuming as well as an uncanny live singing voice, Brinberg so completely inhabits the character of Barbra Streisand that he’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress for Stephen Sondheim’s birthday, on Broadway in a concert performance of Funny Girl, and at the Kennedy Center. But it was at a benefit concert in Pasadena, California, that he learned just how hard it can be to be Barbra.

Throughout all her evolving styles of hair, dress, and music one thing has remained consistent: her fingernails. Streisand has often half-joked that she grew her nails out as an act of rebellion when her mother suggested she go to secretarial school to learn to be a typist. Streisand’s divine manicures have for years been the focus of envy and parody, often at the same time. However, when Brinberg was part of a Pasadena Pops concert with the late Marvin Hamlisch as guest conductor, the nails were anything but helpful. The concert was outside and there was no backstage so the famed composer and conductor invited him to share his trailer to get ready. Once Brinberg was in complete Simply Barbra drag Hamlisch reappeared in his tuxedo with a stubbornly crooked bowtie. Here’s the man who wrote the music to A Chorus Line, the score to The Sting, and one of Streisand’s biggest hits “The Way We Were.” He remains as one of only 16 people to win the EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony), Streisand being another. How was he going to straighten the tie with those nails, and shaking hands to boot. Alas, he got the tie to stay horizontal, nails and all.

“As long as I have the nails, I can do Barbra,” says Brinberg. “If my luggage was lost and I didn’t have the wig, makeup, and costumes, but I had the nails, I’d be fine. Somehow I just knew if she was in the same position she could have handled the tie. I’d figured everything else out about her, why not that? And Marvin was always such a sweet man.”

Brinberg returns to Provincetown, nails and all, after nearly a decade with a trio of shows at the Art House this weekend, showcasing why when it comes to impersonating Streisand he really is unrivaled. Part of what makes performing as Streisand work, and so exciting, is that she’s still very much an active entertainer, putting out new work. And songs from Streisand’s soon to be released album will be part of the show, as will plenty of the classics. While Brinberg nails Streisand’s idiosyncrasies, both in terms of movement and voice, the show is much more classy cabaret than camp.

As an actor Brinberg has performed as other real people as well as fictional characters. But there’s just something about Barbra that keeps him coming back to her, and audiences back to him. As a child his first obsession was Julie Andrews, another icon he’s performed as. But once he heard Streisand sing, he was hooked. He’s a serious student having seen all 19 movies she’s appeared in to date, listened to every available recording over and over as well as watching hour and hours of interviews and digging up back issues of magazine and newspaper coverage. And he’s met just about everyone in the Streisand stratosphere, working with many writers, producers, and fellow performers that she’s worked with. While she is aware of him, they’ve never met…yet. But all of this funnels into each and every show because just like Streisand, Brinberg is a stickler for details. Despite this devotion, Brinberg is creating a character, so with every performance there’s a bit of him in his creation of Barbra.

“It’s a character like other characters I’ve played,” says Brinberg. “ I’m not always in character. I’m not like [famed female impersonator] Jim Bailey who was always in character and where before a show people would say to him, ‘Here’s your dinner, Ms. Garland’ and he’d be, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you.’ Nope. That’s not me. I’m me until I hit the stage. Then I’m Barbra.”

Prior to the pandemic Brinberg was performing shows celebrating the 50th anniversaries of some of Streisand’s biggest films, like Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!, but his tribute to the 1970 movie On A Clear Day You Can See Forever was clipped when stages around the world shut down. Eager to tour now that pandemic protocols are lifting Brinberg will present a little of that show while here in Provincetown before finally doing a run of it in London this September. Be it large concert halls or intimate cabarets in cities like New York or Miami, or small towns like Sag Harbor, New York, or here in Provincetown, Simply Barbra always brings the house down. In part, yes it’s due to the enduring appeal of Streisand and her work, but also Brinberg’s own creations and interpretations. After all these years it still surprises him where he’s invited and the reception he receives.

“It’s quite fascinating,” says Brinberg about the crowds he attracts. “I would say my audiences are very much like Barbra’s. In the early days the gay community were her early fans and remained so, but she obviously also has straight fans, so my audiences reflect both most everywhere I go. I got booked to play Hailey, Idaho, just outside of Sun Valley where Bruce Willis owned a theater. I didn’t know how I would go over in Idaho, but they loved it. Europe. Now Europe is cool, audiences there love it. I played Singapore, Hong Kong. No matter where, whether the audience speaks English or not it’s the music that’s universal. You know Barbra recorded ‘Evergreen’ in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Hebrew. That’s my goal, to learn that song in all those languages and perform it. I’m working on it.”

Simply Barbra performs at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., Thursday, July 15 through Saturday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($35/$45) are available at the box office and online at ptownarthouse.com. For more information call 508.487.9222.