By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Mark Rupp
Steven Brinberg is “simply Barbra,” except when he’s not. Offstage, he says, you might mistake him for Streisand’s out son, Jason Gould, rather than the diva he portrays in Simply Barbra, which Theater LaB Houston (TLH) presents this month at Midtown Arts Center Houston (MATCH).
“The nails, I think, are the most important prop,” he says. “Her hands are so expressive. I could do the show in a tuxedo as long as I have the nails.”
But Brinberg doesn’t do the show in a tuxedo. Bronx-born like Babs, he gets all dolled up so that he looks like the legend, while singing live—no lip-synching. He also approximates Streisand’s pipes in patter with the audience. “I say some things that Barbra might be thinking, but wouldn’t say,” he explains. “Like, ‘Wow—you are sitting so close, you could practically reach out and touch me. But don’t do it.’”
Mimicry has always come easy to Brinberg. “Every year, by the third week of school, I could imitate all my teachers,” he says. “I could hear their voices in my head and repeat what they said. Same with my friends.”
As a youngster, Brinberg performed in musical theater, then “backed away from it” until he got to college at The New School in Greenwich Village. In vocal class, he says, “I realized, ‘Oh my God, I love singing!’ I started out singing as myself—my real voice is very deep—but I would also do imitations. One day I put [my imitation of] Barbra’s voice on a tape recorder, and that was the beginning of this.”
Brinberg booked just four nights of his Streisand show at the legendary Manhattan cabaret Don’t Tell Mama, but it was so popular that he continued appearing there every Saturday night for three years.
He also toured the world, including Houston’s First Ward, where he appeared twice at the original Theater LaB space on Alamo Street. “I’ve performed in more cities than Barbra,” says Brinberg, “but I don’t get as many zeroes at the end of my check.”
The New York Times once noted, “He’s been doing Streisand so long, he’s better at it than she is!”
“Off and on for 10 years,” Brinberg appeared regularly in symphony concerts with the late Marvin Hamlisch, who composed “The Way We Were.”
“He was the nicest guy,” says Brinberg. “He was so down to earth, this man with Oscars, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony, but he was just as excited as I was about finding some great dessert.”
On the subject of food, he adds. “I like coming to Houston for Luby’s Cafeteria. I love food. I’ve been lucky so far that I can still eat what I want and still fit into Barbra’s gown.”
Brinberg most recently appeared in Houston as the star/headliner at TLH’s 10th-anniversary gala at Zilkha Hall in The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. “So it’s been 12 years,” says TLH founder and producing director Gerald LaBita.
Meanwhile, Brinberg has appeared on stage and television, and in movies—from Camp in 2003 to the just-completed Thirsty, in which he plays both a backup dancer in drag and a truck driver!
“If you saw me on the street,” he insists, “you absolutely would never guess that I do Barbra. I could be Jason Gould’s brother, if you think about it. And what I do is not a drag show. It is quite different; it’s not outrageous or raunchy. It’s fun. You can bring the family. I’m just playing a character who happens to be a famous woman, and there are all these great numbers.”
Offstage, says Brinberg, “I’m single and searching. It’s a little difficult, doing what I do. When I meet someone, at first I say I’m an actor, I’m a singer, before I tell them I do Barbra. I don’t dress like her to vacuum—not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
What: Simply Barbra
When: May 26–29
Where: Midtown Arts Center Houston (MATCH), 3400 Main St.
Details: matchouston.org or 713.521.4533
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.