By Geary Danihy
For a certain generation -- or several generations, for that matter -- say the word “candelabra” and an image immediately arises: that of a handsome, dark-haired man with an infectious grin sitting at a piano. The man was Liberace. The entertainer who became synonymous with Las Vegas long before Wayne Newton appeared on the scene died in 1987, but he is back on stage out at Ivoryton Playhouse in an uneven yet eventually enthralling one-man show that features some marvelous music that frames the details of the man’s rise to fame and fortune, his fall and resurrection.
Liberace!, written by Brent Hazelton and directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, ably captures the over-the-top glitz and kitsch that was Liberace’s trademark. Daryl Wagner, who played Liberace for 20 years in the Vegas Legends in Concert, brings the master showman to vivid life, walking the audience through the man’s life and times while performing quite admirably on the piano.
Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in 1919, the young man was destined by his father to become a world-renowned pianist playing only the classical repertoire, but as young Walter, as he was called by his family (his friends called him Lee), reached his majority the Great Depression had the country in its grips, so to make a buck Liberace began playing gigs wherever he could, including strip joints. His father, something of a martinet, was not pleased. Liberace tried to live up to his father’s expectations, eventually earning the right to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However, it was in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1939, that Liberace found his muse and his true calling. After performing a series of classical pieces, he asked, on a whim, for requests from the audience, expecting them to stay in the classical mode. However, a man from the audience requested that he play “Three Little Fishies.” Liberace did, doing riffs on the song in the style of several classical composers. The audience loved it, and so did Liberace. That night, a star was born, a star who would eventually become the highest-paid performer in the world.
Yet there was a ghost in Liberace’s closet that would haunt him for his entire life and even beyond the grave, and that was the issue of his sexuality. The 1950s was, among other things, a somewhat sexually repressive era and the stigma of homosexuality could be a certain death-blow to any personality’s career. Liberace filed two different lawsuits against publications that had hinted (not so subtly) that the entertainer was gay. The Confidential ran a front cover picture of him with the headline: “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be: ‘Mad About the Boy.” The same issue also ran a cover story with the headline: “Now -- Surgery Cures Frigid Wives.”
Though he won the suits, his star seemed to be on the wane. Refusing to walk away from the career he had worked so hard to create, he decided to ride toward the cannons: he eschewed conservatism and opted for flamboyance. The rest is entertainment history.
Liberace!, as staged at Ivoryton, is actually two plays. The first, which deals with Liberace’s youth and rise to fame and ends with an intermission, seems somewhat protracted. Wagner is called upon to provide a lot of information, most of it not dramatized, and there are extensive piano numbers that are quite enjoyable but stretch the first act perhaps beyond where it should go. Hence, after Liberace suggests that everyone take a break, a question arises: are we going to see more of the same when the actor reappears for the second act. The answer is a definite “No!”
Once the lights come up for the second act it is as if the entire production has been energized. There’s audience interaction, there’s drama, there’s more than a touch of pathos, and the entertainer who mesmerized millions truly comes to life. It is in this act that Wagner truly shines, not only as a pianist but as an actor. He creates a troubled, conflicted man who seeks the approval of the critics while finding love in all the wrong places. While the first act seems somewhat flat-line, the second arcs towards a wonderful climax and a revealing and emotionally moving denouement.
The single set by scenic designer Daniel Nischan, though festooned with various lighting fixtures, seems somewhat tame, given the entertainer’s proclivity for excess (perhaps a set change during intermission for the “Vegas” period might have been in order), but lighting designer Marcus Abbott makes up for that with some gaudy displays of flashing reds and blues, and Victoria Blake’s costumes are everything Lee might have wished for.
All in all, Liberace! is an interesting and often quite entertaining trip down memory lane for those who remember the man with the fourteen-carat smile and the intimate wink that ended each of his TV shows. For those not familiar with the entertainer, it is a portrait of an era and a study of an extremely talented man who battled all his life to be who he was while having to hide who he was.
Liberace! Runs through Nov. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.