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-By Anthony Tommasini (taken from The Boston Globe)

     Barbra Streisand loves Jim Bailey’s impersonation of her. In fact, when she hosted a big private party in Malibu, she invited Bailey to perform at it. But, says Bailey, at first Streisand was “a little rattled by my act.” And watching Bailey as Streisand at the Charles Playhouse, where he is appearing through June 12, you can understand why. It’s eerily accurate.

     When Bailey walks out as Streisand, you gasp at first, then laugh a bit. Bailey does his own elaborate makeup (the transformation takes more than two hours) and supervises the painstaking design of his costumes. As an actor, he has obsessed over the details and gotten them right - the watery eyes, the nervous way Stressed licks her upper lip, the stylized way she flicks from her face with one index finger a lock of her silken hair, the awkward way her shoulders twitch. But when he starts to sing, confusion sets in, and it’ not exactly a laughing matter.

     Bailey’s voice is astonishing. There it is, that distinctive, nasal Streisand tone, capable of focusing with choirboy purity on a soft high pitch or opening up into a tremulous, throaty force that clobbers you. There’s the trademark Streisand diction that segues from affected properness to Brooklynese yet always sounds completely natural. There are gentle comic touches. When Bailey prolongs the final word (“world”) in the final phrase of “People,” the note grows in intensity and seems to have about 11 syllables. Yet even that is true to Streisand. After Bailey’s press night performance, capped by that slow-tempo Streisand rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again” that sent the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, a prominent local tenor in the audience said, “If he were to appear in Madison Square Garden instead of Babs, who could possibly tell the difference?”

     Bailey has carved himself an unusual niche in the world of entertainment - portraying legendary female entertainers. His extraordinary Judy Garland, which he is also presenting at the Charles Playhouse in alternation with Streisand, is his most famous impersonation, but he has also done Peggy Lee and Phyllis Diller. Obviously, his work shares some qualities with the traditions of gay male drag. But he does not mock his subjects, he reveres them. He’s a closer soul mate to obsessive actors like Dustin Hoffman, especially the struggling actor Hoffman played in “Tootsie.” Hoffman’s character, Michael, dressed in drag, at first take on the role of Dorothy in a soap opera because it’s all he can get. Soon he’s obsessed with the part. It challenges him as no male role ever has.

     In a similar way, Bailey just drifted into portraying women. Born in Philadelphia, he studied at the local conservatory, where his teachers coaxed him into the operatic repertory for lyric tenor. But he also wanted to sing in shows and act. One day he brought to his lesson a pop song, “Teach Me Tonight.” My teacher, Mr. Stern, disapproved of the title and the song,” Bailey says sitting in the lobby of the Charles Playhouse before a show. Bailey knew then that he could do things that Mr. Stern would never understand. So he left. He moved to Los Angeles. One day at a party with friends, Bailey got up and started imitating Phyllis Diller, whom he adored. “Everyone said my impersonation was uncanny. Soon after this - I was driving and a Judy Garland recording came on the radio. I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’ And I could. I felt that I knew something that nobody else knew.”

     Producers and managers agreed. Bailey started perfecting his portrayals. Eventually he won guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” among others. Roles were created especially for him on “Night Court” and “The Rockford Files.” One of his favorites was on “Switch” with Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert. “I played myself in a two-part story that was so successful it won the show a renewal. The storyline cast me as an actor playing Peggy Lee. Bob and Eddie ask me to create a character, a baroness, to entrap a criminal.”

     Even as astute a judge of acting as Warren Beatty was taken in by Bailey’s act. When Streisand hosted that private party in Malibu, she promised her guests that she would sing. Everyone was there: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Carol Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty. After dinner, it was Bailey who performed, and only when he was accepting his final ovation did the real Babs come out to greet him. “Afterwards,” Bailey recalls, “Warren Beatty told me, “I was completely taken in. Completely".

Copyright 2005 Jim Bailey. All rights reserved.