Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005
The Mac-Haydn has already distributed a press release entitled "Liberace Wins Audience Raves". I was in that audience and I can tell you right now that everyone there had a fabulous time, including your curmudgeonly critic. I realize that this admission may cost me my reputation as a “serious” theatre critic, but if one criteria for “real” theatre is that it makes you think, then Liberace: The Legend Lives fit that bill. I found myself thinking deeply about what constitutes theatre and entertainment.
"Liberace has arrived at a style that is an ornamental genre unto itself. He is a one-of-a-kind musical monument." - The New York Times
What Martin Preston does is a dead-on impersonation of the late Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919-1987). What Liberace himself did is far more difficult to categorize or even understand. Liberace was sort of an embarrassment to the theatre world while he was alive. He was a shameless showman with little real talent beyond his flamboyant piano stylings. But he entertained millions worldwide (by 1954 his TV show was carried by more stations than I Love Lucy), and earned many more millions for his efforts. Whatever Liberace was or wasn’t, he was always completely Liberace, and he was always a sight to see.
"I'm no good, I've just got guts." - Liberace
Preston looks enough like Liberace and does a good enough imitation of his nasal drawl that he himself can pass, but of course Liberace was as much the clothes as the man. Preston has six fabulous reproductions of Liberace’s flamboyant costumes which he parades with as much pomp as the original did. A Liberace concert was always half fashion show, and Preston continues the tradition with sassy little jokes about each outrageous ensemble. I was a little disappointed he didn’t have a replica of the red-white-and-blue hot pants outfit (you’d think in this heat it would be cooler) but he does light up (literally) at the end. Make sure you peek at the amazing shoes that go with each ensemble.
"For me to wear a simple tuxedo on stage would be like asking Marlene Dietrich to wear a house dress." - Liberace
Preston as Liberace and his protégé William Garon, who covers the costume changes with his own song stylings, are very talented and professional entertainers and their show is Very Vegas. The fact that Chatham, New York, rarely gets entertainment of this genre makes it slightly jarring at first. What is all this glitz doing at the Mac? But Preston, 51, has been touring this show for the past fifteen years, and it slides as smoothly into a small venue like the Mac-Haydn as it would into a big urban concert hall.
"I know just how many notes my audience will stand for. If there's any time left over, I fill in with a lot of runs up and down the scale." – Liberace
Great artistry and technical wizardry goes in to creating the illusion of a simple piano concert. Playing on a rhinestone encrusted digital grand piano, Preston performs what he claims are note-for-note recreations of Liberace’s hits. It takes a few minutes to get adjusted to the fact that the music is coming from the speakers and not from the piano itself, but Preston is definitely performing live. Also live on stage is percussionist Addison Gilbert, but all the other instruments heard (and it sounds at times like a full orchestra) are generated digitally by Garon off-stage. Preston gives a full description of how this is accomplished during the show, but when you consider the split second timing required to queue up pre-recorded music to match the variables of a live performance you realize how very skilled technically, as well as musically, this team is.
Garon is most enjoyable in his spots. He is impossibly handsome in a very clean-cut Ken-doll kind of way, and he has a fine singing voice. I fully enjoyed his medley from Oklahoma! and I am sure I would have enjoyed the Phantom of the Opera medley too if Lloyd-Webber’s music was more my style. And I was even more impressed once I learned of his off-stage prowess with digital music.
Alas, I never saw Liberace perform live. My strongest memory of him was a guest starring shot he did on Lucille Ball’s Here’s Lucy TV show in 1970. I remember finding him funny and engaging – fully prepared to laugh at the outrageous persona he projected to the world. But the little I saw of him made enough of an impression that, when my family went to Las Vegas in 2000, the Liberace Museum, founded by Lee himself in 1978, was high on my list of must-see attractions. I took my older son, then 17, and we ogled the rhinestone encrusted costumes and pianos and cars with the mixture of amazement and puzzlement that Liberace no doubt intended to engender.
There will never be another Liberace. And so I would encourage you to take young people to see Preston’s show because I think it will teach them a lot about popular entertainment the mid-20th century. And because I think they will have fun. I know I did.
Liberace: The Legend Lives runs through July 24 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005