03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Elaine Stritch -- An Evening of Fire and Wisdom

You don't go to cabaret for impeccably manicured voices, J-Lo in a catwoman body suit, or performances that skim the surface of a song, pebbles thrown by a child bouncing merrily across the surface of a pond.

You go to cabaret for a theoretically impossible alchemy of exposed emotion, phrasing, the occasional clink of a champagne flute, an evening of enriched uranium.

You go to cabaret for Elaine Stritch. And on Tuesday night, we got her.

My wife and I were in the audience at the opening of her Sondheim show at the Café Carlyle - it's called "Elaine Stritch at Home" because she lives above the store - and it was a thrilling master class in interpretive intelligence and the canny use of decades of earned experience. It overwhelmed precisely because it wasn't over-pitched.

The evening opened without cabaret patter; I've seen Ms. Stritch's previous shows in the Café Carlyle and there was too much nostalgic banter for my taste. She launched straight into "I Feel Pretty," and the audience immediately chuckled at the first few notes of the old West Side Story chestnut because, well, because an 85-year-old woman is supposed to feel pretty. But even if she didn't, for that moment, she sold me.

Sondheim has said he's embarrassed by some of the jejune rhymes in the song - as in "it's alarming how charming I feel" - but Ms. Stritch plunged deep into the psyche of the lyrics; rather than singing to herself, to the "that girl in the mirror" as the song has it, she was telling us, all of us, how she felt.

It was a public confession, and by breaking out of the solipsism Ms. Stritch uncovered a fresh immediacy, a soft core in the hardened chestnut, a zen expression of living in the moment that the song always had, but was buried in its saccharine affect.

Saccharine qualities, however, are not exactly plentiful in the trenchant world of Sondheim, a land of complexity, pain and random joys. Ms. Stritch is truly at home in that world - indeed, is the title of the show a Sondheimian double-entendre? - and she attacks each song with a love, ferocity and understanding that honored the material but didn't treat it with the kind of worshipful reverence we often hear. Too many singers treat Sondheim songs as remote, religious tributes.

Sondheim's intelligence, facility and felicity often mask the messiness of life his songs embody, a demotic, hands-dirty reality that Ms. Stritch grabs and squeezes hard. "The Little Things You Do Together" plays a blistering, gleeful game with the imperfections of even a love perfected, reeling off, in Porterish list-fashion, the "...neighbors you annoy together...children you destroy together that keep marriage intact." (My favorite couplet, a proto-cautionary lesson for aging baby boomers: "Becoming a cliché together...growing old and grey together.)

There are few songs bleaker in the oeuvre than "Every Day A Little Death" from A Little Night Music - currently on Broadway with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Ms. Stritch pulled up a stool and delivered a stripped down, recitative version of a narrative of unrequited love that pulled out all its haunted delicacy; Sondheim channeling Emily Dickinson:

"Every day a little sting
In the heart and in the head
Every move and every breath
And you hardly feel a thing
Brings a perfect little death"

Ms. Stritch has been identified with Sondheim ever since she created one of Broadway's legendary Broadway moments with "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company.

Her version on Tuesday night lost none of its acerbic snap; nor has the satiric conceit of the song dimmed. Sondheim called them an "invincible bunch" and so they remain; today you find them at Café Boulud instead of Lutece.

Indeed, I couldn't help but wonder how Sondheim would limn these women today; so in a moment of unapologetic chutzpah I offer:

"Here's to the ladies who lunch
Aren't they a hoot,
Planning for their Botox
And their little lifts
Struggling to stay cute."

I'm certain that the reviews will be dazzling. But they will spend far too much time talking about the remarkable energy of an 85-year-old woman, and the few moments where she turned to her musical director and pianist, Rob Bowman, for some help. That's the kind of institutionalized ageism that requires a soon-to-be 80-year-old Sondheim to turn into a song of cutting defiance.