Theater review: Have yourself a charming little Christmas with Liberace and Liza
"Mr. Showmanship" appears in a red and gold outfit, with rings on his fingers and bells on his cape, holding an adorable dog. At the Thursday night Underground opening of "A Liberace & Liza Christmas," the totally smitten audience was in the hip pocket of this Liberace before he ever played a note.
David Saffert's Liberace has two things going for him. First, an elfin grin that usually ends up in a sly wink in our direction. Second, killer piano arrangements with Liberace's hallmark dazzlingly excessive ornamentation and which I cannot believe you simply find on published sheet music. Saffert's nimble fingers transform "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" into something else (and beyond).
After an open Christmas medley and a little "Boogie Woogie Eight to the Bar," Liberace is joined by Liza Minelli (Jillian Snow Harris), who arrives heavy on the mascara, light on her feet, and with a voice that really does not need a microphone. (A really big note sure takes a lot out of a gal.) She sings "Cabaret" and "Maybe This Time," the latter sung with slightly altered lyrics to a special man, before taking on something way more contemporary.
Those who attended "The Santaland Diaries" last week will see the same tree, big red chair, and giant presents, but this time around, there is a grand piano, complete with candelabra, and a drum kit helmed by the Little Drummer Boy (Jason Miranda).
An insert in the program allows us to "Sing-Along with Liberace and Liza!" on several carols. Several other audience participation moments can win lucky and limber people a present from underneath that tree with the somewhat familiar tree topper.
The show has a rotating cast of special guest performers. Opening night it was former Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who sat in the big red chair and read "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which was adapted for modern listeners to include shout-outs to Maria Bamford and Bent Paddle, and a warning letter from Human Resources regarding whistling and shouting at the help when you are calling them by name.
Ness was kept around to help sing a Christmas carol, then brought back for a third term to do some soft-shoe to "Winter Wonderland," and then yet again to hold a giant stick (there was more involved, but I do not want to give all the fun stuff away).
Friday and Saturday night, Melody Mendis guest stars as Barbra Streisand. Saturday afternoon, Sarah Lawrence and Cal Metts of Lyric Opera of the North have the honors, while Sunday afternoon, Gaelynn Lea helps end the run.
The fun-filled festivities took a more solemn turn at the end, with Liberace doing a gorgeous melody of Christmas carols, with some wonderful moments of almost quiet simplicity with "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night."
When Liza joins him again on stage for a final song, there was only one Christmas song Judy Garland's daughter could be singing, and only one way to sing it for a perfect ending to a charming evening.
If you go
What: Rubber Chicken Theater and In Sequins present "A Liberace & Liza Christmas!"
When: 7:30 p.m. through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: $25 at duluthplayhouse.org