Throughout a remarkable career that spanned more than four generations he was known simply by the one name. Most never questioned whether it was his first, last or middle, and it didn’t matter. In 1919 he was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace. At home, his family called him Walter, or sometimes Wally. The world knew him as Liberace.
In the one-man, biographical musical Liberace! now playing at the intimate Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre and running until October 9, composer, arranger, producer and all-round musical talent, Jeff Kennedy, plays the excessively flamboyant entertainer as a man returned from above to perform for one last time. Liberace died in 1987, something the character acknowledges from the outset. “I’m dead,” he cheerfully declares with the broadest of customary grins, and explains why he’s back. His role as entertainer in heaven is redundant; everyone around him is already happy. So he’s returned to do what he does best, and that’s to entertain the rest of us with the story of his life, and as often the case, what you thought you knew about Mr. Showmanship is only the tip of the iceberg. “Tonight we deal with the truth,” he announces.
With a set that looks something like the lobby of a celestial afterlife – covered mannequins on one side, a chair and a small table on the other, a trio of lush, red curtains in the background and a piano standing prominently in the middle – Liberace take us back to the beginning, a time long before the grand concerts, the television appearances, films, the controversial court case in London and, of course, Las Vegas. The glittering capes, the sparkling jewelry, the white Cadillac limousine and the indulgent, piano-shaped swimming pool come later. In the show’s first half, Liberace is dressed as he would during the earlier years of his career, in a black tuxedo.
Between performances of everything from Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Minuet in G to Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer and even Beer Barrel Polka (lyrics in the program in case you want to sing along) Liberace walks us through the highlights of his life, beginning with his first name, Wladziu. “My mother liked it when she saw it on the doctor’s eye-chart,” he jokes. Stories of his father, however, were less humorous. Slavatore Liberace was an Italian immigrant with a profound love of classical music. To him music was either “… Classical or garbage. There is no in-between.” When his son ventured from classical to something more popular, his father came down on him hard, indicated by the sound effect of a sudden and severe hand-slap across the face that stuns the audience into an unexpected moment of silence. And there’ll be more moments like that.
While playwright Brent Hazelton keeps Liberace’s overall demeanor upbeat and even playful – while performing a difficult movement, Kennedy’s Liberace looks up at his audience, smiles and winks suggesting that in the end it’s all just for fun – the play will occasionally turn to darker, more upsetting moments that might have brought a screeching halt to the career of another. Despite audience adoration, he was clearly hurt by the avalanche of negative remarks from critics, calling them, “Dozens of clones of my father, each with their own column.” One episode with a London newspaper reviewer in the nationally published Daily Mirror is such a fascinating story there’s even another play devoted to the affair called Liberace’s Suit by T.K. Light. Here in Hazelton’s script, the scenario covering the much publicized 50’s civil action against both the paper and the critic is told in minutes, but it remains a fascinating chapter, all the same. To quote columnist William Connor, Liberace was a “… Deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” It did everything to suggest Liberace was homosexual. Liberace won the case, stating he was not homosexual and had never engaged in homosexual acts. It was the origin of the American slang ‘fruit-flavored’ quote that did it, a term that the English writer had to prove was unknown to him as a derogatory term. As Liberace stated after winning the suit, “I cried all the way to the bank.”
The second half takes on the glitzier Las Vegas years up until his death from complications of Aids in ‘87. While the majority of us remember Liberace, it’s as the Vegas entertainer that most readily springs to mind. Those previous decades of bad films, a TV series, classical concerts and a succession of endorsements are a distant, fading memory, even though at the time he was the highest paid and most popular personality in the country. It’s the excess we recall; the image of a classical pianist who didn’t give concerts but put on a sparkling show. It wasn’t the real Liberace. It was an intentionally gaudy, lavish invention created to stand out under the spotlight above the others and do nothing but entertain. And it did, though as writer Hazelton has his Liberace state when thinking about his competition, why Danke Schoen‘s Wayne Newton was referred to as the King of Las Vegas is something “… I’ll never know.”
The play entertains though remains ultimately lightweight, relying more on great piano playing, which is something this Michael Barnard directed, Phoenix Theatre production has. The facts between the music can’t fail to interest, but they’re highlights that move swiftly from one short anecdote to another with only the more revealing, dramatic moments of sad, self-reflection left to give the show its depth. It’s more like skimming through a Wikipedia report online than reading a full in-depth autobiography. Jeff Kennedy is a better musician than an actor, but with the help of Kelly Yurko’s wig design and Connie Furr-Solomon’s costumes, Jeff helps us suspend disbelief with a change of accent and a fun delivery of Liberace’s winks, smiles, nervous giggles and laughs. It’s not an impression, and Jeff would never convince as a professional Liberace impersonator in Las Vegas, but within the confines of a theatrical setting, the illusion is set, and Jeff Kennedy’s piano playing is, as expected from the man recently honored with the ‘Champion of the Arts’ Award from the West Valley Arts Council, glorious.
Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website