PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Liza's at the Palace... — Garlands for Minnelli

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04 Dec 2008

Liza Minnelli, Billy Stritch, Cortes Alexander and Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina with Johnny Rodgers, and David Zippel
Liza Minnelli, Billy Stritch, Cortes Alexander and Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina with Johnny Rodgers, and David Zippel
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
We have access to the starry after-party on the opening night of Liza's at the Palace...


Not that extra voltage was needed, but on Dec. 3, about the time the light switch was thrown on Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree, Liza Minnelli struck Broadway in Liza's at the Palace... (formerly known as Big Momma's House). Liza — veni vidi vici!

Superstars come in short supply, and they never come in straight lines. They always undulate between extreme highs and extreme lows — it's in their DNA — and Minnelli had much to come back from on this particular cycle. But her fans are the faithful sort, ever hopeful, and the Palace was packed with partisans anxiously attending the reconstruction of a superstar — a spectacle to be celebrated, cheered and cherished.

She didn't let us down. Virtually every number — every number — was received with rousing applause and dotted here and there by standing ovations (especially by the spike-haired enthusiast in front of me). It was back-and-forth love tennis all night.

Broadway's upcoming Hedda Gabler, Mary-Louise Parker, recognized the mutual magic going on. "It's direct reciprocity," she weighed in. "Liza gives so much love, and the audience just seems to take it and give it right back to her. The whole thing is so moving. It's so rare. You don't get to see that so much in the theatre anymore."

Lured by this unsinkable Circe, a steady grind of glamour rolled into the Palace: Shirley MacLaine (who'd played the place in 1976), Vincent D'Onofrio, authentic M-G-M royalty Arlene Dahl and husband Marc Rosen, twice-Tonyed Christine Ebersole and husband William Moloney, Mario Cantone (known for his hilarious Liza imitation), Tamara Tunie, "Ugly Betty's" John Urie, playwright Terrence McNally (who wrote The Rink for Liza and Chita), Tony winners Linda Lavin and Elaine Stritch and virtually every practicing theatrical scribe in New York, NY.

As for herself, a self-professed "shy girl," Liza Minnelli has shied away from this show-biz mecca for obvious, if unspoken, reasons. Truth to tell, she has played the Palace only once before (Dec. 1, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000), and then justifying it by invoking the family name. Minnelli on Minnelli gave her a chance to sing for her father and review his film work. Vincente Minnelli was the definitive music man of movies, despite the fact he could also do damn good dramas.

This time out, she reserves the first act for her own greatest hits, but she turns over a major portion of the second act to the music of her "fairy godmother," Kay Thompson, who more or less created "the M-G-M sound" for the Arthur Freed unit and thus was a person of considerable consequence to both of Liza's parents. Singer, dancer, actor, author, vocal coach, music arranger — Thompson's talent knew no limits. If you need a mental image to go with this, "Think Pink" — from "Funny Face."

A good part of the Thompson segment is a re-creation of Thompson's celebrated nightclub act with the four Williams brothers (including Andy, who had four years earlier been hired to dub Lauren Bacall's singing voice in "To Have and Have Not," and who later became a TV variety-show star). You had to be there — and Liza was, at age two, sitting in her father's lap, seeing the act from stage level a bit distortedly.

Liz Smith, a kindly chronicler of Minnelli's ups and downs and long-time friend, wore a mile-wide smile all evening from Row A in great seats that were tantamount to Liza Concentrate. Quipped Liz's assistant, Denis Ferrara: "I can see her tonsils."

Other contented Row A mates were Gavin Lee and his wife, Emily Harvey, who start rehearsing Jan. 25 in Chicago for their Mary Poppins tour. "I loved being that close," said Lee. "Fantastic! I loved the fact by the end she was dripping with sweat because of just the passion and energy she puts into it. And it's a three-hour show!"

One of the great theatre-poster artists and the illustrator of Thompson's popular series of "Eloise" books, Hilary Knight said at intermission that the notion that Eloise has a little Liza in her is a pleasant myth but just a myth. "Certainly, Kay would've never admitted it," he said. "Liza was fantastic to Kay, really. She did the most extraordinary things — letting her live with her for her last four years."

At the end of the show, Minnelli had enough wind in her sails — barely — to give credit where credit was due. "There is a man in the audience who made my dreams come true," she said. "I first worked with him in 1970 — and I had to audition for him for four years to get that job — right until tonight. He directed and choreographed and made happen this entire production. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ron Lewis."

An unprepossessing-looking, gray-haired man in the first row stood up and bowed.

Later, Lewis admitted it was not easy directing a dynamo. "Every time Liza gets up to rehearse, it's like what you saw on the stage tonight," he said. "Sometimes, we'll tell her, 'Hold back. We don't want you to blow your voice. Hold back. You can just mark it.' Maybe for four bars she'll mark it, but by the fifth bar she's right back in."

Lewis, like the back-up boys, knew Thompson well and can attest to the truth of her goddaughter's tales. "Kay was exactly like Liza was telling the audience in those stories. She was sophisticated and funny and flamboyant and chic — all those things. The stories are true, by the way. Those were incidents and events Liza remembers. We have enough for a ten-hour show. It was very hard to edit the stories down."

Even harder was trimming down Thompson's nightclub act so Minnelli fans would not feel short-changed. "We had four more numbers that aren't in. Originally, we were going to do the whole second act of Kay Thompson, so we had more numbers ready. And we just realized we had to do 'Liza in Concert' first and then Kay, because Kay is not a well-known woman now, just well-known to the people in the business."

Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, arm in arm with Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, exited the theatre, lamenting that loss of Thompson — but, otherwise, "I loved it. I thought it was great. And I've never seen Liza better," said The Silver Fox.

Another twosome, persisting since their 1995 flick, "Circle of Friends" — Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrow — was likewise laudatory. Cumming, who hails from another time and another Cabaret — had one up on everybody else at the theatre: "I saw Liza perform last year brilliantly. It was her Glasgow deboo."

Cheyenne Jackson, who has already played the Palace (in All Shook Up), seemed sufficiently stirred by the evening's entertainment, talking it up buoyantly with pals.


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