Happy Days Are Here Again--Again

SHE WORE BLACK VELVET in the first act, cream silk in the second. She did her standards, a new song and her duets-though nothing, fortunately, from the Don Johnson era. Yet if she was nervous performing for Bill, Hillary and an arena full of adoring Washingtonians last week, Barbra Streisand never let you see her sweat. in fact, her offhand poise and unusually warm, emotional voice made the 27-year gulf between paid public performances worth the wait-and maybe even the $350 ticket.

For two hours of video recollections, 30 songs and a liberal dose of liberal politicking, the First Voice ruled a senate's worth of congressmen, cabinet members and judges. But more important, she erased memories of mannered, disappointing recent recordings and reminded the world that she can sing, not just hit note after gigantic note. Backed by a 64-piece orchestra conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, she reinterpreted nearly all her signature songs, usually for the better. She toned down the trills and belts, turning personal standards and Broadway classics-"He Touched Me," "Nothing's Going to Harm You"-into raw confessions. For variety, there were a jazzy "Lover Man" and a liltingly bitchy "I'm Still Here" (with a new Sondheim lyric: "I kept my distance, kept my space/I kept my nose to spite my face"), which surprised as much as they charmed. She even managed to excavate the sappy "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," uncovering the pain beneath it. When Streisand realizes she doesn't have to sell a song, she owns it.

The evening wasn't an absolute triumph. Her biggest hits-"People," "Memories," "Evergreen"-sank under heavy-duty vocalizing. Streisand has also contracted a case of Cole-itis, singing video duets with herself ("A Piece of the Sky" with a "Yentl" clip) and, even worse, with Marlon Brando ("I'll Know" from "Guys and Dolls"). And though she hardly seemed to glance at the video monitors that prompted her lyrics and remarks, her patter could have used a script doctor. The first act featured mock conversations with therapists, including Freud, that were more inane than self-effacing. Act II was a political convention, ending with a five-minute, flag-waving soliloquy (co-written with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman) that occasionally dissolved into partisan sniping. But as fans who have survived her embarrassing hairstyles, questionable couture and Ryan O'Neal phase know, with Streisand you take the good with the bad. And in this concert, good-and Barbra-triumph.