It may be time for a moratorium on Liza Minnelli's career death watch. This in defatigable performer has endured so many problems - personal and physical - and has had so many comebacks that, in terms of sheer drama, she's outdone her famous mother.
Now, six years after her last triumphant appearances at the Beacon, she's back on Broadway, in the same theater Judy Garland played decades ago.
Sorry to disappoint all you vultures out there, but she's done it again: "Liza's at the Palace . . . !" is the sort of late-career triumph of which show-business mythology is made.
Looking and sounding better than she has in years, the 62-year-old delivers a knockout show that combines many of her best-known hits with a loving tribute to her godmother, Kay Thompson.
Sure, the machinery creaks a little. The voice doesn't have the range or power it once had, and at one point she seemed to nearly collapse after a particularly vigorous dance number. But the visible effort she puts in actually works to her advantage, lending the proceedings a heroic quality that only accentuates the emotional impact of her resurrection.
From her dramatic entrance - in which she's seen in silhouette striking her iconic pose, arm outstretched - to the touching finale in which she performs her mother's trademark "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the show's been staged by veteran director/choreographer Ron Lewis for maximum effect.
Numbers such as the new "I Would Never Leave You," a musical love letter to her loyal fans, and the hilarious "If You Hadn't But You Did," in which she mimes shooting a philandering lover and then casually stepping over his dead body, cannily reference her personal travails. She also notes the "extensive research" that went into her choice of songs about falling out of love, and pauses, for comic effect, when singing the lyric about "pills and liquor" in "Cabaret."
True, the Thompson salute, which features a quartet of mature male singer/dancers in a re-creation of her legendary cabaret act, goes on a little too long. But Minnelli displays a newly sensitive interpretive power in such songs as Charles Aznavour's "What Makes a Man a Man." And when she delivers signature numbers such as that anthem of survival "And the World Goes 'Round" and, of course, the classic "New York, New York," she blends her life and her art in the way that only a true legend can.
I wish I had met Kay Thompson, the creative whirlwind who inspirits the second act of Liza Minnelli’s new show, “Liza’s at the Palace ...,” or simply had the chance to sit at her feet and absorb her presence. From the moment Ms. Minnelli joins forces with a male singing and dancing quartet to resurrect parts of a famous nightclub act Thompson created in the late 1940s and early ’50s with the Williams Brothers, the Palace Theater blasts off into orbit.
There it remains, deliriously spinning until the end of a 2-hour-20-minute show (with intermission) that leaves the star in a state of breathless exaltation. The end of the opening-night show on Wednesday found Ms. Minnelli panting, drenched in sweat, her hair matted, as if she had just finished running the New York marathon, which in a sense she had.
Thompson, Ms. Minnelli’s godmother and a pal of Judy Garland’s, died in 1998. But Thompson, also the author of the “Eloise” books, can be glimpsed via YouTube.com as an elegantly dizzy dame cavorting in production numbers from vintage TV variety shows. In the 1957 movie “Funny Face,” her character, a fashion magazine editor who suggests a hybrid of Auntie Mame and Diana Vreeland, sings and dances and nearly steals the movie from Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. But Ms. Minnelli’s tribute to a woman she calls her “sophisticated fairy godmother” soundly trumps everything I’ve seen of Thompson.
But even in today’s climate of omnivorous video recording, it is useful to remember that nightclub acts remain evanescent, word-of-mouth events, percolating under the cultural radar. So who knows how accurate these re-creations may be?
It is enough to say that beginning with Thompson’s song “Jubilee Time” and running through “I Love a Violin,” Ms. Minnelli and the quartet execute production numbers that are the last word in modern pop-jazz virtuosity from an era when the term modern meant sleek, cool, jet-propelled sophistication. Clad in identical black suits, white shirts and skinny ties, delivering impeccable, jazz-inflected barbershop harmonies as they swoop and glide, Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander, Jim Caruso and Tiger Martina perform astounding feats of singing and dancing coordination. They are assisted on the piano by Billy Stritch, who breaks in to provide creamy vocal fills.
Their mile-a-minute rendition of the Gershwins’ “Clap Yo’ Hands” has the furious velocity and compression of a jazz-flavored rap. The director Ron Lewis’s choreography belongs to the vintage variety-show sort, but is stripped of clichés to the point that it transmits joy and enthusiasm to the audience like an electric charge.
I would love to report that Ms. Minnelli’s voice and physical agility have been magically restored to their former glory, but those days seem to be gone. On Wednesday night her voice was in tatters, her diction unsteady. When she belted, her wide vibrato wobbled to the breaking point. Most of her s’s were slurred sh’s. Frequently short of breath, she swallowed phrases. Many of her highest notes were dry, piercing caws.
But there were still occasional moments of beautifully focused dramatic singing. She wrung every drop of emotion from “He’s Funny That Way,” turning the phrase “crazy for me” into a sweetly exultant cry.
As for movement, there were no kicks or even half-kicks, although Ms. Minnelli can still strut stealthily and sprawl across a director’s chair in sensual abandon. She moved mostly from above the waist, where her signature gestures were intact: an arm flung upward, a flutter of fingers frantically beckoning the audience to “come to the cabaret.”
Once the show began to soar, though, Ms. Minnelli’s force of will became a triumph of spirit over flesh. As she insisted on doing what she can no longer do, her audacity was inspiring: her message was you do the best you can, and if you have to, fake it. She trusted the listener’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
Ms. Minnelli’s stage philosophy, after all, comes from the perspective of someone who grew up in a show business bubble and may never have questioned that life is a never-ending performance starring oneself. Within that bubble, catchphrases like “life is a cabaret, old chum,” and “the show must go on” make perfect sense and become poignant imperatives. As the years pass, Ms. Minnelli, now 62, seems increasingly aware that she is one of the last of a hardy vaudeville breed and the foremost custodian of that tradition. The high point of the first act was a revised version of a vaudeville tribute her mother performed at the Palace.
A pure entertainer like Ms. Minnelli — and there is none purer — is at once voracious and extravagantly generous. If you’re onstage 24 hours a day, you have no choice but to give life everything you’ve got. That was a belief Thompson instilled in her, Ms. Minnelli declared, as if it were gospel arriving from on high.
There’s a standard set of questions to be asked about any Liza Minnelli show: 1. How did she look? 2. How did she sound? 3. Did she open wearing black, white or red? 4. How many superlatives did she spout? 5. Did she mention David Gest? 6. Was she fabulous? A trainwreck? A fabulous trainwreck? For the peace of mind of all the hardcore acolytes desperate to know about “Liza’s at the Palace,” let’s get those answers out of the way immediately: 1. Terrific. 2: Pretty darn good. 3. White (vintage Halston). 4. Lost count. 5. Only obliquely, and not by name. 6. Kinda fabulous.
In her return to Broadway after nearly 10 years’ absence, Minnelli had the opening-night audience in the palm of her hand from her first moment onstage -- striking that signature, one-arm-pointed-skyward pose, appropriately framed by a giant pink triangle of light. Even without the occasional shouts of “I love you, Liza,” the affection flowing from the crowd hung in the air like perfume.
Yet what makes Minnelli a great entertainer when she’s firing on all cylinders is how hard she works for the audience’s love. And how much she clearly thrives on it. In an age in which so many female concert performers are overproduced automatons, deigning to be worshipped by their fans, Minnelli’s emotional give-and-take makes her a disarming relic. Part of the unique thrill of watching her strut through “New York, New York” in New York is the knowledge she represents an era of entertainment that’s all but gone.
Sure, the voice is frayed and husky, the control wavers, many of the lyrics are slurred and the big belt at times hides behind the orchestra’s ample brass section to disguise the effort. But nobody who would buy a ticket to this show in the first place is going to care a whit. Minnelli’s charisma is undiminished and her vocals still have power, warmth and a startling ability to make every song personal.
In “I Would Never Leave You” (written for her by regular piano-man Billy Stritch with Johnny Rodgers and Brian Lane Green), she asks the audience, “Where would I go? Don’t you know how much I need you?” That kind of sentiment might be sticky coming from another performer, but those huge, imploring eyes dignify it with genuine vulnerability. Even before she hoists herself up on an elevated director’s chair to sing a bluesy “Maybe This Time,” her legs dangling like a little girl’s, the audience has already wrapped her in its protective embrace.
Clowning through “If You Hadn’t, But You Did” from the Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green show “Two on the Aisle,” she steps clumsily over the imaginary corpse of a freshly shot husband, wryly referencing her own marital missteps. In Charles Aznavour’s gay existential anthem, “What Makes a Man a Man?,” as Minnelli sings “I stand defenseless,” it’s impossible not to think of her rocky history of tabloid humiliation. And in “Cabaret,” when she deadpans “That’s what comes from too much pills and liquor,” a silent pause and a shrug are all that’s needed to acknowledge those vanquished demons.
In her last stint at the Palace, “Minnelli on Minnelli” in 1999, the performer had to put the chorus boys in charge at frequent intervals to mask her lack of physical stamina. This time, she’s onstage solo through the entire first act and all but one number in the second, and while she’s often out of breath, she never for a moment appears to be giving less than 100%. She doesn’t really dance anymore, but even firmly planted at the microphone through Kander & Ebb’s “And the World Goes Round,” Minnelli has a showbiz illusionist’s way of making a shoulder pop, a nod of the head, a toss of the hand or a shuffle of the feet seem like a full routine.
Only in act two, when Minnelli pays extended tribute to her godmother, the vocal coach, arranger and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, does she get some backup from an appealing quartet of male vocalist-dancers, standing in for the Williams Brothers.
Time-traveling to Ciro’s in 1948, Minnelli and the boys present a zesty facsimile of Thompson’s legendary act, with its sophisticated arrangements, jazzy harmonies and snappy choreography. “Jubilee Time,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “I Love a Violin” are dynamite. And when Minnelli exits while the guys sing the Gershwins’ and Gus Kahn’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away),” the interlude is far more buoyant than any mere filler number. Particularly in this section, which relies on elements beyond Minnelli herself, the polish of director-choreographer Ron Lewis’ work is evident.
Minnelli’s reminiscences about Thompson naturally overlap with reflections on her mother, acknowledged in a touching but rushed act-one medley of songs from Judy Garland’s own post-Hollywood comeback stint at the Palace in 1951.
Perhaps it’s the steady deepening of Minnelli’s rapport with the audience over the course of the evening, but Garland’s spirit seemed almost to be up there onstage with her daughter in a particularly poignant “Mammy” near the close of the show. And Minnelli’s tender choice of encore -- “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” segueing wistfully into “I’ll Be Seeing You” and accompanied only by Stritch at the piano -- seemed the perfect summation of a mother and daughter’s combined legacy, an emotional connection to their audience that in life or death never dims.
It also suggested that when Minnelli does finally decide to stop communing with large congregations, her intimate cabaret act will be a knockout.