It’s ‘Z’, not ‘S’: How Could You Forget?

Last night was the second of our two outings to the Hollywood Bowl this summer. The first, as you might recall, was Guys and Dolls in Concert. Last night’s outing was less theatrical, in a sense. At least it was less plot driven, for we saw that most theatrical of performers, Liza Minnelli. Now, given who we saw and her following, this review looks at two things: Liza herself, and the audience.

Liza is back. Those familiar with her might recall that after her initial debut in Flora The Red Menace, she did some wonderful work in the 1960s and early 1970s. This time brought her award-winner performances in Caberet, her participation in Chicago (she didn’t originate the role, but came in later), and one of my favorite films of hers that we rarely see anymore, The Sterile Cuckoo. It saw her on Broadway in shows like The Act and The Rink, and it saw her on the small screen on the spectacular Liza with a ‘Z’. However, by the late 1980s and especially during the 1990s, her life became a parody (and was parodied in shows such as The Boy from Oz). But she came back with a roar last year in her performances at the Palace, which won her a special Tony award. Liza is back.

I think the reason for Liza’s success is that she embodies the meaning of “performer”. She loves her audience, and her audience loves her back. She’s a very theatrical performer, especially for songs where she can act out a character. She also relates to the audience as a human: she doesn’t hide behind the microphone, but interacts, acknowledges her age and foibles, and just as the love to be onstage. She also chose songs that played to her strengths, for the most part.

Act I consisted of 9 songs, which was almost the same as the first act from the Liza at the Palace performance: “Teach Me Tonight”, “I Would Never Leave You”, “If”, “What Makes a Man a Man”, “My Own Best Friend”, “Maybe This Time”, “He’s Funny That Way”, “Until You’ve Played the Palace (Medley)” and “Caberet”. “If” was perhaps her weakest song vocally: she acted it strong, but her voice is too breathy for the words to be distinct, and I prefer Kristen Chenowith’s enunciation. Other than that, this was a strong first act, and it played to a large component of her audience: the gay men (especially “What Makes a Man a Man” and “Caberet” — I never caught the double-entendre of “When I saw her laid out like a queen” before). But these songs emphasized Liza’s theatricality: she brought them to life with her vocal energy and acting, and you knew you were watching a star.

Her second act was more specific to Los Angeles. She started and ended the act the same as the Palace performance, opening with “The World Goes Round” and closing with “Mammy” and the song that she originated (and not her “Uncle Frank”): “New York, New York”. The three songs in between were different (replacing the Kay Thompson tribute in the Palace performance). She did the comic number written especially for her by her long-time partners and friends, Fred Kander and John Ebb, “Liza with a ‘Z’”. She then sang a song with her conductor, Billy Stritch, that she dedicated to Michael Jackson (as last night would have been his birthday): “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. She then did the jazzy “Alexanders Ragtime Band”.

As her post-show encore numbers (every band seem to have them), she did “Everytime We Say Goodbye” as a duet with Billy Stritch, and then came out and did an acapela rendiation of a song whose name I cannot remember, but seemed specifically designed to be the “go away” song (PP&M’s song is “Goodnight Irene”, and they emphasize the line “Go home to your wife and family…”).

Liza’s show was spectacular: she no longer has the ability to dance as she did in the 1970s, but she still has the moves and the dance in her (as can been seen from her upperbody). She is classy and elegant, an actress on stage whose presence transcends her problems. It was a delight to watch.

Completing the show credits: Liza was backed by a 12-piece band consisting of Billy Stritch (piano), Ross Konikoff (trumpet), Dave Trigg (trumpet), Dale Kirkland (trombone), Chuck Wilson (reeds), Frank Perowsky (reeds), Ed Xiques (reeds), Mike Berkowitz (conductor/drums), Chip Jackson (bass), Bill Washer (guitar), David Nyberg (percussion), and Rick Cutler (keyboards). She was classy enough to bring the entire band on stage with her to take bows at the end of the show. She also brought onto her stage her director and choreographer, Ron Lewis. No credits were given for lighting and sound: the lighting was very good: timed well to the performance and emphasizing her mood and the song’s tempo, and utilizing moving lights more a quick color changers. Sound was typicaly bowl, especially at the back where the echos can make it muddy, although the amplification worked well unless Liza stepped away from the microphone.

What wasn’t pretty about the show was the audience. Perhaps I’m more used to live theatre where the audiences are well-behaved as opposed to concerts, but this audience was apalling. Let me count the ways: We had a mother who had brought her adult obviously disabled son who kept loudly slapping the bench (she was able to control him about 75% of the show, but that remaining 25% was distracting). We had someone smoking pot. We had a Russian group behind us that kept talking, loudly. We had a large contingent behind us that continually screamed “I Love You Liza” and gave loud whistles during the performances. We had folks singing along with the songs, loudly. A number of these problems (esp. the last two) were worse in the second act, perhaps because of the effects of the wine and beer consumed with the picnic lunches (although the pot odor was in the first act). Although the audience was colorful and fun to watch, during the actual performance I had hoped for a bit more decorum. Alas, I’m not sure that outdoor concerts, combined with various culture clashes, are conducive to that. Perhaps they were better behaved in the pricier seats (we were up in the nosebleed section, W2). On the entertaining side of the audience, we did have someone in full out dress as the Emcee from Caberet, a large contingent of red hatters, and the usual audience accoutrements as only the Liza audience can come up with.

Upcoming Theatre: Tonight takes us to the Steve Allen Theatre at the Center for Free Inquiry in Hollywood for a staged reading of the first episode of “Meeting of Minds” (with a stellar cast: Gary Cole (Steve Allen), Danica McKellar (Queen Cleopatra), Joe Spano (Father Thomas Aquinas), Steven Culp (Thomas Paine), and Bill Smitrovich (Theodore Roosevelt)). September brings the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana is the evening of 9/18 and the morning of 9/19; Yom Kippur is the evening of 9/27 and the day of 9/28). The only theatre ticketed so far in September is “The Night Is A Child” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 9/25 @ 8pm. Concertwise, September brings Tom Paxton at McCabes on 9/13. October brings “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the REP on 10/3 @ 8pm and “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 10/24 @ 8pm, and should also bring “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum (HotTix go on sale 9/3; the show runs 9/24 through 11/15). As a reminder, I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix, so if you have a production to recommend, please do so.