Sunday, October 2, 2016

theatre review - LIBERACE - Phoenix Theatre

Jeff Kennedy
photo: Reg Madison Photography
 by Jennifer Haaland

Phoenix Theatre's current production of Liberace! was quite a show to ponder Friday night.  While on the surface it held a glitzy entertainment promise, the show's heart pulsed with a disarming view, letting the mask that covers a melancholy character study gradually fall away.

The one-man show is based on the life and considerable music talents of the celebrated entertainer  mononymously known as Liberace who ruled the piano performance world during his lifetime (1919-1987). It rested on director Michael Barnard's shoulders and in the literal hands of actor Jeff Kennedy at Phoenix Theatre.

In a haunted mansion sort of opening, the dimly lit stage featured a glowing grand piano replete with a flickering signature-Liberace candelabra.  Standing center stage in a beam of eerie down-light, a tuxedoed Liberace introduced himself as a dead man returned.

He explained he was visiting earth to deliver happiness and love, being heaven's routine abundance of those commodities made him feel less special and appreciated. That exposition provided all the audience needed to understand. Here was a troubled returning soul charged with truth telling when his needy love and flamboyant joy threatened constantly to divert him.

Liberace's piano prodigy childhood and early adult life of strictly classical fare presented two production challenges. One was a slow script determined to present the stunted existence he felt. Liberace and the first act were trapped between his unloving father (who was himself a classical musician) and his mastery of a history-honored instrument. He knew the piano could sing joyously and even a little naughtily if only he were allowed to break the rigid music rules demanded by the era's composers and consumers. The delivery of those stories was understandably hungering for some Liberace splash and pizzazz that simply didn't exist yet in the man's life.

The second challenge was in the vast difference between Kennedy's undeniably accomplished piano-playing style and Liberace's famously clean, precise performance style. The show was anchored by a couple dozen of Liberace's best known performance pieces... from Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff to Scott Joplin and Cole Porter.  When Kennedy delivered a thoroughly enjoyable but heavy-handed boogie woogie at the show's onset,  he set a musical tone of rumbling, eliding and sustained phrases, especially in the bass registers.  Ears accustomed to or anticipating Liberace's music needed to re-tune their expectations.

Jeff Kennedy
photo: Reg Madison Photography
As Kennedy aptly demonstrated while seated at the piano bench, Liberace's fame was derived from being an original crossover artist.  He turned classics to pop and classicized pop tunes effortlessly.  One of  Kennedy's most attractive skills allowed him to wink and visit with the audience while his hands continued up and down the keyboard telling marvelous, wordless stories of their own.

The "Three Little Fishies" number toward the end of the first act brought the crowd alive, not unlike Liberace's own life. He confessed that the concert in which he initially played it was nothing short of "the first day of the world" for him.  "Chopsticks ala Liberace" was playfully engaging, too. The audience participation in Cole Porter's "Night and Day" proved Kennedy was an excellent impromptu comedian as well.

The wonderful flamboyance was, as the show's beginning had promised, but a backdrop for a conflicted man's truth. His struggle was all the more discordant because he wanted to care only about joy and "zesty loving," but the insistent truth wouldn't let him off the hook that easily.

To that end, director Michael Barnard and actor Jeff Kennedy most certainly understood their complex mission. The subtle effectiveness of the show's shape and its script shone in the emphasis it gave to that over-arching story.  A restless undercurrent. A man with something to tell who didn't want to tell it. More than that, he was a man with something to tell whose audience had never wanted to hear it.

Jeff Kennedy
photo: Reg Madison Photography
"Love's enemy is not hate. It is fear."

Liberace almost whispered the sad admission that defined so much more than the anecdote he was relaying in the second act. Early on he had gestured to the back of the house, introducing members of his technical crew who were there to keep him 'on message.'  On a number of occasions, he began a story but abruptly aborted it with a wave or nod of recognition toward the back of the house.

By the second act, the closer Liberace got to explaining his criticized personal relationships and falls from public grace, the more irritated he became with that unseen technical crew. The opulently elaborate costumes, lighting effects and even mannequins assisted the necessarily uncomfortable communication.

The perspiration and breathless, choppy lines indicated that Kennedy's role was an exhausting one.  But it also depicted poignantly the difficulties humans face to own their stories.

Even in his posthumous return, Liberace was constantly tempted on the Phoenix Theatre stage to cleverly circumvent the demands of his guilty conscience. The music and the story he needed to own were still struggling to surface. Liberace! provided insight into an exquisite showman constantly diverted from the message his heart felt compelled to divulge.

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