True lovers of the theatre - and if you're reading this site, that's probably you - will relish every last second of Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a dazzling and dizzying retrospective of the last 77 years of the life of an extraordinary Broadway actress and the cast of real-life characters she has encountered along the way, from Marlon Brando and Ben Gazzara to Ethel Merman, Gloria Swanson, Richard Burton, Edward Albee, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince.
But even those whose interest and knowledge of the last half-century of American theatre is only marginal or at best passing should not miss this either, for it's also an aching study in one woman's struggles with her demons (in particular, alcohol) and how she harnesses them in a very real battle for survival. It becomes about nothing less than the resilience of the human spirit, and I was weeping by the end: not for the undeniable joy of sharing in her wonderful treasure trove of theatrical stories so beautifully told, but for being witness to a story that is so indescribably sad, too, and so truthfully rendered.
On an almost completely bare stage, empty except for a metal bar stool, Stritch bares her soul in an evening that is as much a confessional as it is a celebration, if not more so. Forgive me if I make it sound morose: it is anything but, for she tells her life story without an ounce of self-pity or sentimentality.
With a script constructed by the American theatre critic and biographer John Lahr, and billed in the programme as 'reconstructed' by Stritch, a vivid and intensely personal journey is charted through a career that stretched from understudying Ethel Merman at the age of 20 in the original Broadway production of Call Me Madam to creating leading roles in shows as various as Noel Coward's Sail Away and Sondheim's Company. Stritch has also had notable successes as a straight actress, with roles in such plays as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance and William Inge's Bus Stop.
But while the recitation of anecdotes about these shows, and songs from them, provide a structure for the evening, there's a far richer, and sadly darker, layer beneath in her attempt to come to terms with this person whom Stritch self-describes as an "existential problem in tights". She realises, she goes on, that for a lot of her life she wasn't really there: "It almost all happened without me". So the show is partly about reclamation of what she has lost: "I caught up, and I'm up here now".
And as seamlessly and expertly directed by George C Wolfe, with a wonderful live band under the musical direction of Rob Bowman, this Broadway legend may finally be doing it without a drink for company, but she's far from alone. Reaching out into the darkness from that lonely spot on the stage, she embraces us all.