If Steven Brinberg ever has the chance to meet Barbra Streisand, the performer he’s been impersonating for nearly 20 years, his first question for the superstar would be about Chinese food.
“Barbra grew up in Brooklyn and as a girl worked as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant,” says Brinberg, a native of the nearby Riverdale section of the north Bronx. “She likes to eat and I would want to know if she has ever found an old-fashioned chow mein parlor like the ones we probably both remember.”
Brinberg will soon have the chance to explore some of Madison’s Chinese restaurants when he brings “Simply Barbra” – his tribute show to the protean artist – to the main stage at the Overture Center for the Arts on March 30. Creating a stunning illusion with the use of costumes, mannerisms and impeccable vocal imitation, Brinberg will bring Streisand to life for a 75-minute tribute through the artist’s greatest hits and those that might have been.
“Barbra Streisand is an iconic figure in entertainment and has been for many years,” Brinberg says. “If you’re going to do a show about someone, she has to be fascinating.”
Streisand, who turns 70 on April 24, has fascinated Brinberg since he launched his first “Barbra” show in 1993, just months before the legendary singer announced her comeback tour. Brinberg, who attended New York University and The New School, has always been good with voices. A brush with a karaoke machine, a cassette recorder and a sheaf of Streisand songs set him on his career trajectory.
“My father was always the nosy type and when he found a cassette tape with my name on it, he just plugged it in,” Brinberg says. “He thought it was Streisand singing, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this.’”
Brinberg is one of only two male Streisand impersonators who does his own singing rather than lip-synching to Streisand recordings. “Hers is such a unique voice that it’s hard to do properly,” he says. “I want to do her justice because I am such a fan.”
Brinberg doesn’t break his Streisand character during his show, but he does do other voices. During the current tour, he performs “Alfie” and has Barbra imagine what other singers would do with the material. The results include measures sung by Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Cher.
“When I tour England I also do Julie Andrews because they love her so much there,” he says. “I could probably do Cher better than I do Barbra, but her music is generally dance songs, and those are not something you can do standing there in a beautiful gown.”
Some of Brinberg’s most memorable moments have come from accompanying composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch, who has also served as music director on some of the real Streisand’s tours. Thanks to Hamlisch, who was impressed by Brinberg’s CD of Streisand songs, the singer almost got to share the stage with his idol for a New Years Eve performance.
“Marvin’s idea was for Barbra to say something like, ‘You know I’m so busy I almost wish there were two of me,’ and then for me to come out in full costume and makeup,” he says. Unfortunately, the performance was too far along in its production phase, and singer Lauren Frost was already booked to portray a younger Streisand, so the idea was shelved.
However, Brinberg immediately went on to perform with Hamlisch in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., coming on as a surprise guest to sing “The Way We Were,” “People” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” He’s also performed on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and met more than his share of celebrities, including Liza Minelli, Alan Cummings, Michael Feinstein and Patricia Neal. He even stood in for Streisand when the singer couldn’t make it to her friend Donna Karan’s birthday party.
Brinberg’s Madison show will include some numbers Streisand hasn’t sung, including “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” and “Make Someone Happy.” Brinberg knows Streisand is listening, because she has recorded songs that he’s performed as her. And he also knows that impersonating the singer has changed his life.
“Barbra says she’s shy, but I think I’m more shy,” he says. “Sometimes, when I get in a tough situation, I think ‘What would Barbra do?’ And that helps me out.”
Having spent his career as “Simply Barbra” has never caused Brinberg any regrets, he says.
For an actor, I know there are three great roles to play,” Brinberg says. “Hamlet, God and Barbra Streisand. I am very lucky.”
Singer Steven Brinberg performs “Simply Barbara” on March 30 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. For details visit overturecenter.com. Use the code OUTREACH when you purchase tickets, and $5 will automatically be donated to support the critical programs provided by Madison’s OutReach Community Center.