By Brooks Appelbaum
He was a child prodigy, concert pianist, outrageous (and outrageously successful) personality on the Vegas Strip, and for a time, the highest paid entertainer in the world. Yet Liberace was “Mr. Showmanship” in far more ways than one, and Daryl Wagner, who plays him in Brent Hazelton’s one-man biographical show, now onstage at the Ivoryton Playhouse, hits every note: on the piano, which he plays beautifully, and in the roller-coaster life of a brave and tormented man.
Liberace adopted his first persona, meek and longing to please, to combat childhood run-ins with his tyrannical father, an Italian immigrant with ambitions for his son, and with other unkind father-figures who pushed him to pursue a classical career. Often this pushing took a nasty form, and Wagner interrupts the bravado, the corny jokes, and the over-the-top playfulness to inhabit these characters with spot-on accuracy, and to give us the response of his younger self: bewildered, poignant pain.
Once Liberace finds his musical niche, as he calls the unique blending of popular music with classical styles, the persona we see is a man proud to chronicle his rise from pianist for strip joints and supper clubs to appearances at Carnegie Hall and star of television and the Las Vegas scene. However, beyond Liberace’s escape from father and convention, Hazelton’s overly long first act has very little human drama, and the chronicle becomes tedious, despite gorgeous and varied musical numbers, performed with Liberace’s signature out-sized gestures, joy, and wit.
Only at the end of Act One do we sense that a dramatic arc may be approaching. (Yes, this is a one-man show with two acts, running over two and a half hours.) Liberace begins the story of his fight against allegations of homosexuality during those decades (particularly the 1950s and 1980s) when that label would kill the career of a lesser performer. Libel lawsuits, which he won, were among his weapons. But more successful still was the early creation of his protective and very public persona, “Mr. Showmanship,” (“You know when I speak in the third person I’m talking about him,” he tells us), whose sparkle, furs, and feathers dared his detractors to top every idiosyncrasy that Liberace, as “Mr. Showmanship” put onstage.
As promised, Act Two introduces us to “Mr. Showmanship” in full, be-furred and be-jeweled force, and here we learn, too, about the pain that this most publically joyous entertainer (“Too Much of A Good Thing is Wonderful!”) experienced throughout his private and closeted life. Liberace! as a script needs much editing, but if the playwright were willing to re-shape the work, this could be one of the more layered and moving biographical musicals in the genre.
Certainly, Daryl Wagner inhabits the role so thoroughly that the script’s convention -- Liberace has come back from the dead to tell his real story -- is plausible. Wagner not only looks very much like the man, but he once worked with and for Liberace as singer and pianist and has performed as Liberace in Legends in Concert for over twenty years. All of this informs an almost startlingly believable portrayal. And Wagner has a maestro’s touch on the piano.
Director Jacqueline Hubbard, also Artistic Director of Ivoryton Playhouse, has created a most effective production with and around her star. Naturally, despite Wagner’s long years of performing Liberace, Hubbard has guided his strong performance in this particular show. Daniel Nischan’s scenic design, replete with candelabras and chandeliers, holds several compelling surprises, and Marcus Abbott (Lighting) along with Tate R. Burmeister (Sound) complement both Wagner and the script. The costumes (Victoria Blake) collaborate, as they must, with Wagner in telling Liberace’s story. And quite a story this is.
Liberace! runs through November 15. Tickets are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.