Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The very slight conceit is that Liberace has returned from heaven, since everyone is always happy there, to bring some happiness to us earthlings, who obviously need it, and to also reveal some truths about his misunderstood past. Structured as an informative autobiographical overview of his life, with over a dozen musical pieces interspersed throughout, the show reveals a decent amount of interesting information about Liberace's early life as well as a few poignant moments about his later years. While it isn't all rosy and doesn't skirt some of the negative moments in his past, it does come across more as a CliffsNotes version of this famous entertainer's life than an in depth analysis. There is also a strange unevenness in the tone of the piece.
The show was written by Brent Hazelton and developed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, which is fitting since Liberace was born and grew up in Wisconsin. Hazelton's script offers some interesting tidbits about Liberace's early life including the fact that his father was stern and that he was trained as a classical pianist. We learn that Lee, as his friends called him, didnt have fun playing classical concerts as he needed to have a connection and interaction with the audience, something virtually nonexistent when playing a traditional classical repertoire. Lee needed to find a way to spread and receive the love he needed to give and feel. Having fun with classical music and joking with the audience proved more entertaining and resulted in a stronger mutual connection between performer and fan. He rebranded himself as "Mr. Showmanship" and, after receiving harsh reviews from those who didn't quite know what to make of him, decided to play for the people and not for the critics. In doing so he became one of the highest paid entertainers from the 1950s to 1970s.
The unevenness in this play comes from several factors, first of which is the slim concept. We are told he has come back from heaven to entertain and enlighten us about his past but, while hearing about Liberace's difficult early years may be new information to those who only know him from his flashy Vegas concerts, there isn't much information that couldn't be gleaned from a quick Google search. The second issue has to do with the strange interludes when he goes off on a tangent and is about to disclose some personal moment from his past. Instead of revealing anything, he stops mid-sentence and looks up to the heavens as if God is telling him not to get off the topic. It's never explained why he shouldn't finish his sentence and if these moments are supposed to add a dramatic moment they simply add confusion instead. If Liberace has returned from heaven to entertain us and enlighten us about his past then why does Hazleton include these strange interruptive interludes? Also, while the script does touch upon the gay rumors that Liberace fought, and the resulting libel case as well as the palimony lawsuit from his relationship with Scott Thorson, it never truly touches upon why Liberace hid his homosexuality and even lied about it under oath during the trial. Act one is fairly humorous, peppered with a couple of funny but somewhat risqué jokes, while act two gets very serious, though Michael Barnard's skilled direction helps in ensuring the shifts in tone aren't that rocky and that the show remains as entertaining as possible.
Besides Barnard's worthy contributions, this production is also fortunate to have Jeff Kennedy, who is very good at portraying the various sides of Liberace. From the insecure young man to the flashy, over the top entertainer, as well as various other people in his past, Kennedy uses different vocal inflections to appropriately distinguish these individuals from each other, which keeps the show from becoming monotonous. While in real life Kennedy doesn't look much like Liberace, an impressive wig, makeup, and some superb costumes (Connie Furr-Solomons designs are knock-outs) plus a slightly high pitched voice give an appropriate impression of the famous entertainer. Also, Kennedy's piano skills are superb and perfectly suited for the wide range of musical styles that Liberace was famous for, many of which the show includes.
While it isn't perfect, what Liberace! does get across extremely well is how talented the entertainer was, and how desperate he was for love. It also does a good job of showing that Liberace was simply too insecure to admit the truth about who he was in order to get that love from one man; he instead had to find a way to get that love from his fans. However, being an incredibly successful closeted gay man in the 1950s must have been extremely difficult and there are many details that are glossed over, as Liberace did in his life. With Kennedy's superb performance, Phoenix Theatre's production results in a charming and entertaining show. It's just too bad that Liberace! leaves so many questions unanswered.
Liberace! runs through October 9th, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Written by Brent Hazleton
*Members of Actors Equity Association