Liza's At The Palace...!
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
December 3, 2008
This may sound strange, but I kept thinking about Karen Finley while watching Liza's at the Palace. In her recent show, Make Love, Finley made Liza the central symbol of a resilient post-9/11 New York, a life force that cannot be stopped. Finley was onto something.
There is something both magnificent and—well—unkillable about Liza Minnelli. She's suffered terrible health problems, been feted, celebrated and written off as a showbiz joke. She's idolized and parodied. Now she's at the Palace for a month-long run, and the question is—so how is she now?
The answer: damn good and worth every penny. Does she have all the old notes, the old dance steps? Of course not. She's past 60. But she's gained in nuance, subtlety, acting values, and a breathtaking way with phrasing. She gives a two-and-a-half-hour show her all, and her stamina is superhuman. When she digs down and opens up, she can still hit a note that makes a thrill run up your leg. She adores the audience and they love right back. You have the feeling that if she could, she would leap into every lap in the house, kiss, snuggle, laugh at your jokes, and refuse to leave until you cracked a smile.
And like any smart headliner, she surrounds herself with the best—a crack orchestra conducted by Michael Berkowitz and supervised by pianist Billy Stritch. Their sound is brassy and gorgeous, and they follow her every breath.
She starts with a low-key rendition of "Teach Me Tonight," letting us come to her. Even her phrasing of these words—"teach me tonight"—is directed to the audience as a sincere question, a respectful request, an admission of need. Liza is nothing if not sincere. She's doesn't have an ironic bone in her body, which is why she's such a remarkable interpreter of the Great American Songbook. She plays the emotion on the surface of the song, and then digs and digs like a badger to get more. She's a stunning interpreter of lyrics. This devotion to the lyrics, the humanity in the song, is how she gets away with choices that would doom a lesser talent.
Take the song she performs in the first act, "What Makes a Man a Man?" This Charles Aznavour song is an earnest and somewhat dated depiction of cruelly oppressed gays and drag queens. Yet, with her laser-like focus on the humanity of the song's storyteller—her insistence on empathy and commonality—Minnelli turns the dreary pre-Stonewall politics into an acting tour-de-force. If the anti-Prop 8 forces in California had put Liza on YouTube doing this number, they would have won by 20 points.
In the first act, Minnelli delivers pretty much what you'd expect: lots of Kander and Ebb—"My Own Best Friend," "Maybe This Time," and "Cabaret." She pulls out the vocal stops with Momma's famous Palace medley. She knows her audience and she gives them what they want. She's not going through the motions, but on the other hand, she's not breaking any new ground.
But Minnelli shows in the second part she's still capable of surprises. The second act is a remarkable feat of show biz archeology; Liza recreates the legendary nightclub act of her godmother, Kay Thompson. Thompson, a remarkable if now largely unknown woman, was a performer, arranger, composer, and children's book author. In the 1940s, she performed a nightclub act with her discoveries, the Williams Brothers (one of whom, Andy, is still going strong). With her backup singers standing in for the Williams, Liza rolls out showstoppers like the Gershwins' "Clap Yo' Hands" and "Basin Street Blues." But it's Thompson's own compositions, particularly "Jubilee Time" and "I Love a Violin," that are standouts. The rousing and rollicking "Jubilee Time" sounds especially fresh, hip, and sassy.
In Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen talks about performers who could talk to the audience and make them feel as if they were talking to each one of them. Hagen called this "the hardest part." She cites Charles Laughton, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland as being able to pull it off. Liza can do it, too.