CMNW Council

DramaWatch: Liberace and Liza’s holiday sparkler

A fond farewell (and hopes for next year) as the show nears its end. Plus: Dickens and other Christmas quickies, "Dracula" and more last chances, national notes.

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David Saffert and Jillian Snow star as Liberace & Liza Minnelli in "Liberace & Liza Holiday at the Mansion (A Tribute)." Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
David Saffert and Jillian Snow star as Liberace & Liza Minnelli in “Liberace & Liza Holiday at the Mansion (A Tribute).” Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

In December, we all get used to sparkle. Colored lights, shiny baubles, garish sweaters, what have you – the winter holidays bring out a visual extravagance as if to compensate for the gloomy onset of winter itself.

But there’s no sparkle quite like David Saffert’s entrance near the start of Liberace & Liza Holiday at the Mansion (A Tribute). Stepping onstage through a stage-right archway, Saffert beams at the audience for a moment, then says – in what is a sly combination of welcoming invitation, saucy come-on and self-deprecating joke – “Well, look me over. I didn’t get all dressed up to go unnoticed!”

He wears bright gold shoes, red plaid pants with bands of gold glitter down the sides, an apron festooned with piano keys and stars. The piano theme extends even to the oven mitts on both of his hands, a keyboard decoration running across the wrists.

In any other circumstance, the outfit would be rather much. But here, of course, Saffert isn’t Saffert. He’s Władziu Valentino Liberace, one of America’s most successful stage and television stars of all time.

And though the folks have shown up to the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory, they’re now friends; guests in the Moroccan Room, a richly appointed party spot in Liberace’s mansion overlooking the Las Vegas strip.

Seifert at the keyboard. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Seifert at the keyboard. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

“This is my favorite room in any of my mansions,” Liberace – or Lee, as his close friends would say – tells the assembled audience. “I have two of these rooms – this one in Los Vegas and one in Beverly Hills.” Just a brief pause lets the notion of multiple mansions and duplicative interior-decoration budgets sink in; then: “Isn’t it wonderful what you can do with money?”

Of course, the sparkle is just getting started for the evening. He gives a quick tour of the room, puzzling over the inclusion of a beautiful blue-tiled fireplace despite the Nevada heat, or noting a large brass hookah with the quip, “This is where Phyllis Diller and I used to get high.” With a grin and a wink, he sits at a baby grand piano topped with a candelabra and plays a florid rendition of “Sleigh Ride.” Soon, another friend arrives – none other than the triple-threat star Liza Minnelli – and the songs keep coming, the patter gets more and more hilarious, the fun rolls on.

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Plus, Liberace is cooking, and not just on the keyboard. The apron and the oven mitts? Impediments at the piano, perhaps, but essential tools for when he ducks into the kitchen to check on the progress of the lasagna he’s whipping up for us.

Snow, with flair. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Snow, with flair. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Holiday at the Mansion – directed by Chip Miller and co-starring Jillian Snow as Liza –  has been doing brisk business at Portland Center Stage for the past several weeks. And though it closes this weekend, it’s the sort of delightfully evergreen entertainment that really should be a perennial. Saffert and Snow portray their celebrity characters with a great balance of musical skill, comic chops and sincere affection that elevates the performances from impersonation into tribute. The show enjoys the steadying influence of music director Bo Ayars, who worked decades ago for Liberace himself and who keeps things gleamingly professional yet still loose enough for the playful improvisatory energy of the show’s stars to lead the pace.

Best of all, Snow and Saffert, their characters playing off each other as both warm pals and egocentric rivals, are endlessly charming and just flat-out funny. It’s the kind of show you can enjoy multiple times. Did we mention that PCS should program it again for next year?

(If you can’t get tickets this weekend and can’t wait a year, you can catch Saffert with the popular Portland dance troupe BodyVox in early February for Flights with BodyVox, billed as  “An Evening of Dance and Wine Pairings.”)

However scrupulous a tribute Holiday at the Mansion may be in some respects (for instance, the baking of the lasagna that provides the show’s minimal narrative through-line was based on a paragraph in a Liberace autobiography), it’s merely a colorful invention. Even though they both were luminaries of a now bygone brand of showbiz glamor, the real Liberace and Minnelli never performed together.

Saffert happened to start performing as Liberace. Snow happened to start performing as Liza. They happened to meet. And together, their characters sparkled.

You might not have pegged either of these two for entertainment royalty at the outset.

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“I am from the great state of Wisconsin,” says Saffert, who has that biographical detail in common with Liberace. “I grew up in towns of no more than 2,500 people, very conservative areas of Wisconsin where if you’re a dancer or you’re in theater or play piano it’s a total sissy thing. I was the only boy in town that was studying piano, but I loved it.” 

Unlike Liberace, he came late to classical music. “There were no classical stations in the middle of Wisconsin; I grew up on Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. When I got into middle school I got a new piano teacher who was really into classical music. There was a student a few years older than me and I would hear him playing Beethoven and Chopin and I just thought, ‘Where has this music been my whole  life?!’ I fell in love with classical music and movie soundtracks, especially John Williams.”

College brought more intense piano study, but also a little experience with improv theater, where his musical skills also could be put to use in bits on, say, Chico Marx or Barry Manilow.

“When I moved here to Portland I started doing what I called the Birthday Shows as part of the Fertile Ground festival, which landed in the time of year around my birthday. I thought, ‘I might be playing Shostakovich, I might be playing ragtime – who knows what?’ But I always added a theater element as well; I’d have dancers from OBT come in, and opera singers…” 

“I’m from the greater state of Oregon,” Snow says, “from Salem. My parents worked a lot, so we spent a lot of time at our grandparents’, entertaining ourselves. They had four or five movies: Cat Ballou, Carousel, Oklahoma and I think Grease, and Easter Parade. Easter Parade is where I first saw Judy Garland and I just lost it from that moment. I grew up in a house full of punk rock and then there was this whole other musical world I discovered at my grandparents’ house.”

Seifert and Snow: a rare partnership. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Seifert and Snow: a rare partnership. Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Snow describes herself as “a really shy kid” who would sing only in secret. “My sister put a tape recorder outside my door when I was about eight or nine, because I was singing in my room and she shared the tape with my parents. I was obsessed with pigs when I was growing up and always wanted one, so my parents said, ‘We’ll get you a pig if you do the talent show at school.’ And I was so shy that I passed up the pig! I still need therapy about it – I could’ve had a pig!”

Despite her shyness, she went on to college in New York City, by which point her love of all things Judy Garland had expanded to include Garland’s daughter Liza.

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“A friend who was hosting this piano bar was egging me on, because he knew I did an impersonation,” Snow recalls. “So I did it one night after a few martinis gave me the courage.” 

Someone in the audience recommended her for a show – “It was like an ‘80s-style Miss America pageant, but instead of a beauty contest, you paraded your best gay male friend in all the categories” –  that played to a celebrity panel including the stage star John Cameron Mitchell and the Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. An enthusiastic writeup from Musto led to gigs at lounges around New York while Snow still was just 20.

But the grind of a three-job life in New York, plus a breakup, led Snow to move to Portland, where her sister – a production designer who had worked with Action Adventure Theatre before moving into film and TV work – offered a place to stay. “And she’d been talking about how I needed to meet her friend David. ‘He’s a kook, like you.’”

Snow started attending the Birthday Shows. “He asked me to do Liza one year. And he was doing Liberace, which a mutual friend of ours had egged him on to do. It’s all about egging people on to do stuff that they’re not really comfortable doing. And a career is born!”

The act has been evolving over the course of a decade. Initially the duo began doing a Liberace and Friends show, in which Snow portrayed not just Minnelli but Garland, Bernadette Peters and others. The characters that had the best chemistry, though, were Liberace and Liza. Eventually that pairing became the center of a holiday show at CoHo Theater, where Saffert says they began to build a real following. (Holiday at the Mansion includes a brief, touching tribute to the late Philip Cuomo, who was CoHo’s producing artistic director.) 

The duo has brought the show back to Saffert and Liberace’s home turf of Wisconsin, and enjoyed a five-night residency at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco (Liberace & Liza Open Their Golden Gates), but it was an August 2022 booking at the New York restaurant 54 Below, Saffert says, that really raised their national profile. 

Even so, the PCS show has felt like a new level of ambition.“ We’re used to playing in lounges, with a piano and a candelabra,” Saffert says. Now they have a striking stage set (designed by Saffert’s husband, Tyler Buswell), lights, cues to remember and spots to hit. 

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“I think it’s scarier doing it in a theater,” Snow says. “Other people depend on us to be in a spot when we’re supposed to be in a spot.” 

Sparkle, it turns out, isn’t always as easy as it looks. 

“I still want to pass out before I go onstage,” says the once-shy Snow. “It’s hard. We’re both little ‘fraidy cats until we get up there and start to play off each other.”

Adds Saffert: “There’s nothing easy about it. We’re playing legends.” 

Christmas quickies

Thom Bray as Mr. Dickens himself, performing "A Christmas Carol." Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre.
Thom Bray as Mr. Dickens himself. Photo courtesy CoHo Theatre.

Taking advantage of a hot seasonal market for wintry stage shows, a handful of productions pop into town for just a day. Saturday features two double-headers: That is, two performances of A Christmas Carol at CoHo Theatre, with Thom Bray in “a re-imagined audience-interactive presentation of Dickens’ famous reading of his beloved story,” and two shows at the Newmark of Christmas with C.S. Lewis, a portrayal of the famed fantasy author that explains his transition from atheism to Christian apologetics. Wednesday evening at the Schnitz, it’s The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show, a celebrated drag spectacular starring BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon, both famous from RuPaul’s Drag Race. 

Closing

From left: Jamie Rea, Setareki Wainiqolo, La' Tevin Alexander, and Treasure Lunan in "Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really." Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
From left: Jamie Rea, Setareki Wainiqolo, La’ Tevin Alexander, and Treasure Lunan in “Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Dracula is a perfect vehicle for grappling with toxic masculinity,” wrote ArtsWatcher Darleen Ortega in her review of the Portland Center Stage production Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, adding that playwright Kate Hamill’s “characteristic playfulness suits the material, injecting bits of lightness that ease the darkness and violence.” Time is about to drive a stake through this one, though.

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Great White Gets Off  closes Saturday, and you might want to make an extra effort to see it because you might meet these folks again. That is, Fuse will stage a sequel, Great White Gives It Up – featuring the same men hooking up and grappling with sexual and racial power dynamics – this coming spring.

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Lots of shows out there are anxious to help you get in the Christmas spirit. A handful of those – Broadway Rose’s Home for the Holidays, Stumptown Stages’ musical adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, Portland Revels’ solstice celebration Emerald Odyssey, and, down at Cannon Beach, the Coaster Theatre’s Miracle on 34th Street – end this weekend and cede the festive work to others.

But really, that’s just when the Christmas season begins (the 12 days of Christmas begin with Christmas Day, remember?). So you’ll have another week to stay jolly with Northwest Children’s Theatre’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Imago’s ever-delightful ZooZoo, and, of course, A Christmas Carol at Portland Playhouse and A Christmas Carol at Medford’s Collaborative Theatre Project.

Song of the week

Second-hand news

This site is Oregon ArtsWatch and focuses primarily on our great state, but culture sniffs at borders. Though I don’t have the privilege and pleasure of seeing shows in New York, I enjoy reading coverage of the NY theater scene. After all, the pipeline runs both ways, not just with popular Broadway or Off Broadway shows later being produced here, but occasionally with stagings here (Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, for example) leading to celebrated national productions.

All of which are good reasons, I’m thinking, to check out the year-end wrapup from Vinson Cunningham and Helen Shaw, the fine critics for The New Yorker. 

“Over all, dark, meditative productions prevailed, often with their sets literally sunk in shadow,” they write. “The shows that drew us took place in primordial woods, or an ink-black night, or London in the smog—we spent a lot of 2023 peering. Theatre clearly remembered that it’s good at providing introspection and long-duration thought.” 

Speaking of fine critics, the field looks like it’s losing another of its most prominent, as Peter Marks departs his post at the Washington Post, accepting a buyout after more than two decades at the paper. Rob Weinert-Kendt, the editor-in-chief of American Theatre, conducts an exit interview that also serves as an interesting discussion about the state of the, um … art?

The flattened stage

The best line I read this week

“Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications. Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”

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― Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories 

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next year.

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Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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