Bea Arthuris onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre as though she has spent much of her recent life welcoming theatregoers day and night. Comfortable, at ease and fully in charge of her surroundings, Arthur starts this 90-minute intermissionless show at full throttle and rarely lets up. But if you think that you'll leave with a clear picture of the woman behind the famous basso and withering glare, you might be expecting too much.
Anecdotes spill all over the stage and Arthur refrains from euphemism as she describes the great and not-so-great with equal doses of acid. The stories are as funny as the delivery, and every once in a while we are permitted an insight that raises the tone of the writing considerably. When Arthur admits that Mama Rose is a role she had always hoped to play, but never did, there is nothing maudlin in her admission. Instead, we understand the way she faces facts and the way she doesn't give in to self-pity. When she speaks of Lotte Lenya there is nothing obsequious in her adulation. Bea Arthur has been privileged to live a rich life that is, and has been, filled with fascinating people.
But why, I wondered, does she take such delight in speaking ill of Jerome Robbins (there are plenty of stories published that attest to his loathsome behaviour) without explaining what he ever did to hurt or upset her. Pia Zadora, hardly in the same league, is savaged in a story I suspect is more apocryphal than legit, but again I wondered what the point of it is. Arthur certainly doesn't suffer anyone very much, let alone the obvious fools, but it's easy to imagine a professional of her stature and extensive history having a fortress to fill with similar ammunition. I laughed along with most of the audience, but by the mid-point I was wishing that she would focus more on herself than on her knowledge or observation of others.
The shape of the show is a curiosity. Starting well with Arthur attacking the stage, and the audience, with her favourite lamb recipe, she soon meanders between reminiscences and an eclectic variety of songs. The music is accompanied by the most expert of pianists, a diminutive put-upon named Billy Goldenberg. And their rapport is endearing though I couldn't help but wish that the venue were a club rather than a 1000-seat theatre. Aside from a few exchanges between performer and musician that are anything but the spontaneous bouts of banter they pretend to be, the duet are perfectly matched and mutually supportive.
I'd prefer more talk and less singing, though it is absolutely certain that Bea Arthur can wring more sense from a lyric, profound or profane, than most any other musical performer I have ever encountered. Intelligence fairly sizzles as she interprets works by Weill, Bernstein, Sondheim and many others. And her willingness to move from sublime to ridiculous, with several return trips before the evening's final moments, speaks to a professionalism grounded in the love of performing more than in the search for celebrity and self-aggrandizing tributes.
I was among her loyal fans with both of her hit television series, and it's nothing less than inspiring to spend an evening with her all these years later as though not a moment had passed. Judging by her attitude and her indomitable take on life, moments of time with Bea Arthur cannot be gauged by anything as commonplace as a clock or a watch.
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