The stage is on fire with the radiance of millions of sequins and the over-the-top soprano arias, moving into a hint of silvery vibrato, that made Liza Minnelli a star of stage and screen. Triangle Productions’s newest show willkommens, bienvenues the United States premiere of Liza! Liza! Liza!, an intimate portrait of the manic, pixie-haired diva.
Imagine an evening in a small lounge while Liza delivers her hits and shares the story of her life. This alone is the devil giving his come-hither finger. But on stage are not one Ms. Minnelli, not two, but three. We get the young, vivacious, and eager Liza; the middle-aged, accomplished, and sensual Liza; and the older, sadder, but wiser Liza. They all take on her signature bubbly speaking voice with its sexy and breathy laugh, creating a magic blood harmony of a similar woman’s voice as it changes with her years.
More than twenty-four of Liza’s songs provide the soundtrack of her train-wreck life. She’s a Hollywood blue-blood, but her life is punctuated by calamity and her overwhelming drive to have the show go on. The play – by Richard Harris, whose other famous work includes The Avengers British television show – approaches her life and art with sensitivity. Liza struggles with her body image, family history of addiction, chaotic love affairs, illness. Forget (if you can) that she’s Liza Minnelli, and her problems are the same ones many women combat. This puts Liza’s feet firmly on the earth, despite her stardom. In an age when celebrity pretends to be goddess-like in its perfection, it’s refreshing to know that some of our heroes can be great creative forces at least partly because of the obstacles they face and overcome.
It’s plain that Harris wanted to capture the glamour and mystique of Liza, and yet he glossed over some of her achievements and important moments. Liza lost close friends to AIDS, including Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson and her first husband, Peter Allen, who wrote the Arthur soundtrack. She’s been not just an early outspoken advocate, as the play touches on, but also an important philanthropist for AIDS research. The play describes how she was named after her famous godfather Ira Gershwin’s song, Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away), but makes no mention of her godmother, Kay Thompson, who wrote the decades-popular Eloise series of children’s books, inspired by Liza. Eloise herself is modeled upon Liza’s childhood. In a recent show, Liza celebrated Thompson as one of the only maternal figures in her early life, paying tribute to her by covering songs that Thompson sang or wrote in her days as a performer.
Hannah Lauren Wilson’s youngest Liza captures all of the young performer’s eagerness, sparkle, and drive to make it in show biz. She’s restless and hungry, and sometimes this means biting her nails to the quick. Her big doe-eyed determination is matched by the singular force of her voice. In Wilson’s first duet with the eldest Liza, Emily Sahler, sans mics, the ladies belted out Get Happy with so much energy that, from my seat in the second row, my program notes began to waver. Wilson’s kinetic thrill is matched by her evocation of the young Liza’s lack of at-home confidence and its veins of the troubles to come, which she expresses delicately.
There is a replication of the famous bare-boned parlor chair that Liza used as a ballet barre and stand-in for a man in her spectacular dance as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s film version of Cabaret. The anticipation is hot and heavy as we wait for the most famous age of Liza to appear. Jillian Snow Harris, as the most celebrated Liza, makes all the ferment of little Liza seem like destiny: the dance practice, the drive, would move from bottled-up ambition to the perfect hip shake and millionth-of-a-breadth limb maneuver that Liza could match to a syncopated rhythm. The triple-sized eyelashes, Nefertiti-esque eye liner, signature beauty mark, and garters summon the iconic Liza in a breathtaking moment.
Emily Sahler’s Liza of today is the well-honed leading lady and fast talker of the trio. She’s an Italian broad who wants to do her stuff. She chain-smokes, drinks like a fish in a Waterford crystal bowl, and gives an edge to the less experienced Lizas; her glamorous no-nonsense character grants the younger Lizas a sense of purpose to their conflicts. Sahler is the prima Liza: all of the heartbreak and triumph result in a cutting wit and self-realization that only the passing of time can make.
Once rock ‘n’ roll made the scene, the song-and-dance act went the way of the buffalo for a few decades. Many performers, such as Bobby Van, were known as talents, but they were born too late to be fully appreciated. Liza was a quick study, and melded the attitudes of her generation with the craft of her parents’ to revive show-stopping entertainment. The three Liza! Liza! Liza!s re-create the infectious theatrics, which we thankfully re-embraced after an ill-informed insomnia of the senses. Many of us in the audience went back and forth between a succession of “wows” with their enactments. At the end of the show, all of us were singing tunes by Kander and Ebb (the dynamic duo that penned for Liza and wrote Cabaret and Chicago into our hearts) like they’d never be out of style.
Triangle Productions’ Liza! Liza! Liza! continues through May 28 at The Sanctuary. Ticket and schedule information here.