All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Does any well-known entertainer make a grand living today by primarily playing the piano in 1,000-seat nightclubs or on television?
The answer is no. Just as no current opera singer or ballet dancer are the household names Luciano Pavarotti or Rudolf Nureyev were 25 years ago, no solely instrumental musician has a foothold in the public imagination.
Where is “The Ed Sullivan Show” when you need it? Television and radio have abdicated their place as a discoverer and introducer of talent. Even “The Voice,” “American Idol,” and “America’s Got Talent” don’t showcase the classical or instrumental performer.
So Victor Borge, Liberace, and even Jo Ann Castle of “Lawrence Welk” fame, are dinosaurs of sorts.
Yet Liberace is a breed whose notoriety lives on. Even generations who pay no attention to the stars and culture of the recent past conjure an image when they hear the name Liberace. Some may think of a guy who died from AIDS and whose estate was challenged by a one-time lover. Others think of opulence and excess — gaudy candelabra on the piano, intricate costumes abounding with fabric, fur, and jewels. The lucky will remember a gifted pianist who may not have had the perfection or interpretative skill to become a classical star but who had the sensitivity and lavishness to make his piano playing a populist staple.
Liberace was a star for as long as I can remember. Brent Hazelton’s thoroughly diverting show about him, “Liberace!,” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, informs me that Liberace came to the limelight around the time I entered the world. Hazelton also chronicles the entertainer’s struggled to maintain his status as Mr. Showmanship and to defeat an urge to be what critics wanted him to be to command amazing salaries and become the darling of millions by doing shows and playing and playing piano in a style that suited him.
I always feel a little sad for artists like N.C. Wyeth or Leonard Bernstein who were convinced, or convinced themselves, that only a certain kind of painting or composition was worthy of being considered great. Wyeth, one of the most prolific and expressive artists of his day could never get his mind past an idea that he was “only an illustrator.” Never mind that his paintings contain marvelous imagination and detail. Bernstein was luckier. Although he was influenced by and succumbed to comments about show music, or music for the theater, being inferior as an ambition to classical works to be performed by orchestras and choral ensembles, Bernstein was able to leave a legacy of “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “Trouble in Tahiti,” “Candide,” “West Side Story,” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” while conducting and composing for classical concert halls.
Hazelton depicts Liberace wrestling with and finally defeating the same pangs. The pianist’s greatest success came, Hazelton says, when he stopped worrying about pleasing music critics and set about using his more important instinct for wowing the public. Hazelton also lets us share Liberace’s personal triumphs when New York critics hail his Carnegie Hall concerts for its musical virtuosity.
Let me not give the impression Hazelton’s “Liberace!” is a sobfest with Jack Forbes Wilson, who plays the entertainer and who did the arrangements for the numbers presented, whining endlessly about what went wrong or was challenging in Liberace’s life.
Contrarily, “Liberace!” is a celebration of the fun, bombast, and showmanship that earned Liberace ongoing popularity and fame. Wilson masterfully demonstrates Liberace’s corny humor, his way of turning his extravagant outfits into 10 minutes of patter, and his way of laughing at his own material, and by extension, at himself. Liberace practiced the maxim Momma Rose expresses near the end of the musical, “Gypsy,” when she says, “No one laughs at me because I laugh first at me.”
“Liberace!” is no work of art. It can be sentimental and drag a little between sequences, but it is, like its subject, engaging fun, one that will have you smiling and amused throughout, because it captures the essence of an expert entertainer and fully illustrates what made Liberace so effective and great.
Wilson, an excellent pianist, takes the stance of an entertainer. Even in relating the parts of Liberace’s story that suggest pathos, he keeps things light and comic as Liberace would have. The accent at the Walnut is in giving the audience a good time. Wilson and Hazelton more than oblige with an upbeat show that contains lots of examples of what I call Liberace’s interrupted melodies and some full renditions of popular and well-played piano solos ranging from “Malagueña” to Beethoven’s embracing “Moonlight Sonata.”
Nothing can put a pall on Wilson’s story. His Liberace can relate how his father discouraged him from seeking a career as a pianist, how he had to walk the fine line between being the artist some insisted he be and the entertainer that earned him more money and praise, how he lived monastically off-stage to hide his homosexuality, even though a gay image helped him in his work, and how he battled AIDS and dealt with a serious love relationship with Scott Thorson. He can relate all of this while keeping his humor, letting the obstacles he faced be a story that, except for AIDS, always had a happy ending and usually a triumphant one.
Liberace was part of the Hollywood-Las Vegas firmament. He performed and hobnobbed with the great and while New York purists may have not appreciated or congratulated his artistry, millions of television viewers and concertgoers did.
And why not? In researching a number of Liberace concerts and talk show appearance on YouTube while preparing to review Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in “Behind the Candelabra,” I was astounded at the quality of his playing and the endurance of his elemental grasp of entertainment.
Jack Forbes Wilson captures all of that. It doesn’t make a difference if “Liberace!” is not perfect. It’s enlightening and entertaining. It accentuates what is important about Liberace and clearly lets you see, through Wilson, the gifts Liberace brought to the stage and television screen. The actor has Liberace’s smile and posture down pat. There’s that little lean and sway as a punch line comes. There’s the hands folded or being wrung just about the navel. There’s the twinkle in the eye and the knowing charm. And there’s florid piano music.
Wilson does homage to Liberace and credit to himself. He can play all of the grandiloquent embellishments that were Liberace’s signature. He can also settle into simplicity and show the serious artist Liberace could be in doses that would hold without boring the Las Vegas audience that might want more patter and trills than a cleanly played, sensitive performance.
Wilson provides both. He doesn’t look like Liberace, but you see the entertainer in him the whole time, as much when he is concentrating on Liszt, Chopin, or Beethoven as when he’s remarking on a flamboyant cape, flashing his many rings, or pursing his lips while awaiting the laugh, a laugh that always comes, to a silly joke.
Liberace stood for showmanship, for giving his audience a tour through his life and his wardrobe in addition to marvelously and cleverly arranged music. Hazelton understands his subject. Wilson exudes the best in him. “Liberace!,” upon thought grows from an amiably slight entertainment into a fitting, constantly amusing, engaging entertainment smartly did. Showmanship, tempered with sincerity and talent, rules the day, and Wilson leaves you wanting more, the way any master entertainer should.
Scott Davis’s set in simple in concept but clever in details. Candelabra and chandeliers, the first in molded gold, the second dripping in crystal bangles, hang from every corner of the wings and are even extended to the entranceway into the theater. Draped mannequins stage left look like ghosts under their gray cloth. Wilson will reveal them to be costumes Liberace wore over time. That until, the last unveiling when a surprise image appears. One that haunts like a ghost might. The grand piano, of course, is festooned with a candelabrum as soon a Wilson reveals how Liberace’s signature prop came to be.
Alex Tecora must have jumped for joy when Hazelton, also “Liberace!’s” director, gave him the assignment to design Wilson’s costumes. A tux suffices for much of the first act, but whether on Wilson or a mannequin, we eventually get treated to Liberace’s feathered finery. I especially liked a Roxy usher outfit Wilson’s Liberace says was worn in days when he was trying to blend into the settings of where he played, some of the venues being movie theaters.
Lighting becomes important when all of those chandeliers are present, and Scott C. Parker does a fine job in that department. Nicholas Gackenbach makes sure the Independence Studio resonates with sound.
“Liberace!” runs through Sunday, April 12, at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.