December 6, 2008

Surviving with "Liza's at the Palace"

As much as I’d like to, I can’t tell you a damn thing about the first half of Liza’s at the Palace…! because I didn’t see it. I had tickets for the first night of Liza Minnelli’s new comeback concert but somehow forgot that opening night curtains rise earlier than those for regular performances. And so my sister Joanne and I arrived at the Palace Theatre right as the audience was streaming into the lobby for the intermission break.

People seemed to be in a good mood about what they’d just seen. And a few celebrities peppered the crowd. Alan Cumming darted out of the theater as though he were desperate for a smoke. Vincent D’Onofrio sauntered by. Tommy Tune held gracious court in one corner of the lobby. And I later read that Shirley MacLaine and Elaine Stritch had turned out too.

But instead of gawking, I spent most of that time feeling bad that I’d deprived my siste
r of seeing the part of the show in which, according to the Playbill, Liza sang many of her signature tunes, including “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” The second half of the show, which we did see, is dedicated to her godmother Kay Thompson, a legendary Hollywood vocal coach, arranger and performer (as well as the author of the "Eloise" children's books) and it largely recreates the nightclub act that Thompson developed in the late ‘40s. It includes a couple of songs written by Liza’s godfather, Ira Gershwin. “Wow,” my sister leaned over and whispered. “She had great godparents.”

And that, of course, is a large part of our endless fascination with Liza. As the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, she is true s
how business royalty. She’s also probably our last link to the era of vaudeville and big movie musicals and razzle-dazzle Broadway shows. We’ve followed the family’s ups (Oscars for mom, dad and Liza, Tonys for mom and Liza, Emmys for Liza) and downs (substance abuse, bad marriages and divorces, weight issues and health problems for all three) for over 70 years now and in the process, we’ve developed a fondness for Liza that has developed into a protectiveness. We root for her to succeed.

Which is probably a large part of the reason that the reviews for Liza’s at the Palace! are mainly raves. The New York Times even assigned Stephen Holden, the most easy-going of its critics, to review her show. The critic for Time Out New York s
tarted off tough but couldn’t resist blowing a few compensatory kisses at the end of his short review. And if you’re hoping for some snarky comments from me, then you might as well stop reading.

Liza is now 62 and in just this decade alone, she’s been through a much-publicized divorce, had hip replacement surgery, survived a bout of viral encephalitis that nearly killed her, ballooned in weight and then slimmed down again (click here to read a New York Magazine profile). And yet, there she is up on the stage of the legendary theater where her mother made her own comeback in 1951, dressed in her trademark shimmery Halston-designed outfits and giving all she’s got.

It’s not as much as she once had. Even though the choreography was gentle
(more shoulder rolls and head tilts than high kicks) she seemed out of breath during most of the songs and actually stopped in the middle of one, gasping “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” But then, she went on. My buddy Bill, who did get to the theater on time, later told me that it wasn’t much different during the first act. But none of that mattered. Technical abilities are one thing. Artistry is another. Liza's artistry has always been that she works directly from the heart. And the audience on opening night wrapped her up in its own.

Folks in the front row stood after almost every number. I’m told that it was filled with friends who get those seats because they promise to give her t
hat visible show of support. But I don’t think there was any similar deal with the four guys sitting in the mezzanine right behind Joanne and me and they jumped up, stomped their feet, and shouted “Diva” just as often. As anyone who has ever attended a Broadway show knows, “the taking of photos is strictly prohibited” but phone cameras snapped constantly throughout the Palace, creating a kind of light show in the audience as people attempted to preserve some tangible memory of the performance.

Both exhausted by the performance and exhilarated by the response to it, Liza took bows that lasted for about five minutes. She giggled with glee. She hugged her four male back-up dancers. She insisted that the 12 members of the onstage band take a bow with her. And then, accompanied solely by her friend and music supervisor Billy Stritch on piano, she sang a moving and totally appropriate encore number that sent the audience out purring with delight.

“None of us are what we used to be,” a woman told her companion as we all filed out after Liza struck her iconic arm-thrust-upward pose and the final curtain came down. “But she’s still good.” A man standing nearby agreed. “She’s a superstar,” he said. “There’s very few of them left.” You’ll get no argument about any of that from me. I stood and clapped too. I wish I had seen the whole thing but I’m very glad that I got a chance to be there for even a part of this show business history. The run, originally scheduled for 10 days, has just been extended through Dec. 28. I started to worry about whether Liza has the stamina to make it through but then I remembered that she's a survivor.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Bless mother of Maude Adams, you were late! Oh no! I'm so glad you at least made it in time for the second act. I love love love this: "Liza's artistry has always been that she works directly from the heart." Brava.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Tardy thanks for the kind words, Sarah. As you know, Liza had to miss a show this week because of dehydration and exhaustion. But the run has been extended yet again so here's hoping that she can make it all the way through.