Saturday, January 10, 2009

NYC Trip II - Liza's at the Palace

When it comes to theatre, I am a self-professed, unapologetic snob. But when it comes to entertainment, even I have my guilty pleasures. So, how does a self-proclaimed aesthete reconcile spending $100 on a ticket to see Liza Minnelli?

First, the buzz for the show was delivered in phrases that only publicity agents and nelly hairstylists use: "Fabulous!," "Liza's Back!," "Stunning!" In retrospect, I wonder if they were referring to her plastic surgery rather than her performance. Liza maybe back and she may have a new face, but she needs a new act. There was nothing about Liza's performance at the Palace that convinced me of her talent with the exception of my memory of that talent. Apparently, the critics and homos are too blinded by the Minnelli to see that this performance is not only weak, it's embarassing.

And yet, I understand their enthusiasm. With the first few chords of Kander and Ebbs precious melodies my skin melted into goosebumps that I haven't felt since I first played those songs on my hi-fi in college. Liza's performance at the Palace wasn't about Liza or her talent, but about those that have idolized her for so many years finally being allowed to see her live and in person. It's disgusting to me that the reviews should be so positive about a performace that is clearly resting on its laurels of yesteryear. On the other hand, she is a fine actress who has endured stardom into infamy. But, let's face it, isn't her infamy equal to camp sensibility? She's had more face-lifts than Cher, she can barely hold a note longer than 2 measures, she can't walk across the stage due to a bad hip from all those years of Fosse, she dotes on her obviously gay chorus boys which reminds us of her unrealistic marriage propositions. Let's face it, Liza Minnelli is the daughter of Judy Garland and has no concept of reality. The fact that middle-aged fags and aging botoxed housewives spend hundreds of dollars to see her pathetically flail about onstage is disgusting. I am all for supporting aging actors and the moments when Liza played a role suitable to her age and ability level, I was transfixed. She truly is an amazing actress worthy of all her awards and praise. If she could only drop the act that is "Liza Minnelli" and just be an actress, she would have so much more to offer.

In the 20-some-year hiaitus that she has been away, Liza has apparently been having surgery, marrying gay men, and practicing her bow. She may not be able to hold a note longer than eight counts, but she sure can bow. And the audience eats it up. She could hardly sing three notes without flocks of fags leaping to their loafers; they even gave her a standing ovation for blowing her nose. The majority of the 2-and-a-half-hour performance is consumed with Liza thanking the audience, the audience applauding Liza, and Liza taking a bow. Conjuring Roxy Hart's line, "They love me for loving them," I couldn't help but wonder if the audience was there to see her performance or to see her perform Liza. The cynic in me doubts her sincerity when she states that she does this just because she loves being here. With ticket prices spanning $100-$120, I can't help but wonder if she needs to pay off the plastic surgeon. The mostly middle-aged gay men and rich-looking, tight faced women around me, however, swallowed it hook line and "singer." Could someone pass me the Kool-Aid? I love Liza, but this is RIDICULOUS!

This criticism is not to say that there weren't some truly extraordinary moments in the performance. This is, after all, a woman who was (pro)created for the stage and screen and her unalterable showmanship absolutely shines through in rare moments. Every one of these moments occurs when she stops playing the overly rehearsed persona of "Liza" and performs as an actress. The Liza persona is based on a 20-year-old coke addict who "just happened" to find herself in the spotlight after being raised by two Hollywood legends. What worked in the 70s does not hold sway in an era of celebrity status sans talent (e.g. Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, George W. Bush). Liza is far more compelling when she displays her talent rather than her personality. This occurs in her performance of songs outside her usual canon, such as "If You Hadn't, But You Didn't" where she plays a wronged middle-aged wife who shoots her husband, "What Makes a Man a Man?" when she depicts a pre-Stonewall gay male, and her impersonation of the famed Elsie from Chelsea in "Cabaret." The other most notable number from her performance is "I Am My Own Best Friend" from Chicago, which she relates with a delightful story about substituting for Gwen Verdon in the original Broadway production. This song, which borders on trite and superfluous in the narrative of the original show, assumes another stratosphere of meaning being sung by a legend who's failed relationships make tabloid headlines and whose every exploit has been reported in the media. Liza's performance of this song evoked an empathy that was lacking in the rest of the evening. When Liza stops playing Liza and commits to her ability as an actress for which she has won many accolades and awards, one realizes why this woman is a legend in her own right.

The second act of Liza's show is devoted to recreating the 1950s nightclub act of her god-mother and Hollywood doyenne, Kay Thompson. While it's certainly an elucidating homage to a woman for whom attention should be paid, the act is tired as is Liza's performance thereof. She barely has the stamina to perform an entire number and her physical limitations prevent her from performing them to completion. Instead of the revival of an under-recognized star of Hollywood yore that was intended, we are given an out-dated, uninteresting, pre-modern nightclub act that even Liza is too tired to perform in its entirety. The idea behind the performance was good, but the execution is lethal. It would have been far more interesting if Liza had stuck with personal stories about Kay Thompson than tried to recreate her nightclub act intended for 1950s-60s audiences paying the price of a two-drink-minimum. For me the price to see this theatre legend was too high, though countless middle-ages gay men would protest.

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