By Karen Isaacs
Liberace! now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 15 is a new play written by Brent Hazelton about the famed entertainer. It is an enjoyable evening in the theater but could use some major cutting.
Much of the credit for the success of the show is due to Daryl Wagner as Liberace and director Jacqueline Hubbard.
With any one-person show, you need a “hook” – why is the character on stage and who is he or she talking to. In this show the premise is that Liberace, who died in 1987, has returned from heaven for one day and is telling us his life story.
Liberace, a native of Milwaukee, was a classically trained pianist who was always interested in entertaining and so turned his talent and his flamboyant personality into a career that made him millions. He had a popular TV show, Vegas shows and concerts. Among his biggest fans were middle aged and older women, who seemed to delight in his sequins, his candelabra, his pearly white smile and his devotion to his mother. In fact, for almost 20 years he was the highest paid performer in show business.
The show opens with a rendition of “Boogy Woogy;” let’s say right off that Wagner is a fine pianist, though like Liberace he can be a little “sloppy” in his playing. He tells us about his youth – his French horn playing father who worshipped classical music and disdained popular music, his early piano training, his meeting with the great pianist Paderewski, and his early jobs (this was the depression) playing in speakeasies and strip joints. He also tells us about his years at the conservatory and the teacher that influenced him. Interspersed are both classical and popular music; sometimes he talks while playing.
On the story goes – how he began to create his stage persona, who he calls “Mr. Entertainer,” then on to LA, Vegas, TV until by the late ‘40s he was one of the best known performers in America.
Of course, there were the problems – whispers that often hit the tabloids that he was gay, at a time when that was career suicide. He won several libel suits against tabloid media, but his career took a nose dive in the late ‘50s though he resurrected it by becoming even more flamboyant.
He continued to thrive with Las Vegas long term contracts and other TV shows as he became more and more outré – hot pants costumes, lavish furs, and more.
In Liberace! he barely discusses his private life. Only towards the end of the show and his life, does he talk a little about “the love of his life” which ended badly.
But it must have been difficult to be Liberace. His persona was stereotypical “gay” – with smiles, winks, a sweet voice, and some double entendres directed at both sexes. At a time when homosexuality was career death, Liberace denied his sexuality – even suing a London paper and winning. When he died in 1987, an autopsy revealed his death was caused by an AIDS-related illness.
Recently, Michael Douglas played Liberace with Matt Damon as Scott Thorson in a well-received HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra. It was based on Thorson’s autobiography; he was Liberace’s chauffeur and lover and had sued him in the 1980s for palimony.
Daryl Wagner stars a Liberace. He certainly has had plenty of experience playing him. In addition to being a composer and pianist, Wagner was actually hired by Liberace to perform in the entertainer’s Tivoli Gardens in Las Vegas. After Liberace’s death, Wagner played him in the Vegas “Legends in Concert” show and later starred in his own Liberace tribute show.
He’s on stage for over two and half hours – never breaking character and playing numerous pieces on the grand piano. He has captured Liberace’s persona, gestures, smiles and winks, and voice. He shows us the “Mr. Entertainer” voice that is an exaggerated version of his own voice. Wagner also does a good job playing a few other characters, though these are very brief.
This Liberace is at times angry: angry at his father for not accepting the showmanship and popular music Liberace preferred, the media for the insinuating stories, and particularly the NYC critics who, until the ‘80s, bashed him whether he was playing at Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall. He is also angry at Thorson and the coroner who decided to do an autopsy on Liberace’s body which confirmed the rumors of AIDS and therefore his sexual orientation.
Hubbard does an excellent job in keeping this over long show moving with effective lighting by Marcus Abbott, scenic design by Daniel Nischan and sound design by Tate R. Burmeister
What about the costumes? Wagner does not do multiple costume changes which would be difficult. Most of the first act he is in a tux and in the second act he is in a dressing gown and later an over-the-top mink coat and sequined tux. But you won’t miss out on some of the elaborate costumes. They are on mannequins – covered until Wagner unveils each of them in turn.
Let’s hope Liberace! is a work in progress. It certainly needs cutting; perhaps some of the musical numbers including a long Gershwin medley near of the end of the show could be shortened or omitted. Certainly, it would help if Liberace could be more honest with the audience about his life. This show is all about, “and now I did this…” It must have been difficult to deal with the innuendos and rumors and knowing his reality.
But it seems as though, he barely acknowledges the realities of his life after his childhood.
Liberace! is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sunday, Nov. 15. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.
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