The Siegel Column

Liza's at the Palace ... which is where she should be!

Liza makes the most extraordinary theatrical gestures and strikes impossibly bold dramatic poses. Any other entertainer attempting to do what she does on stage would elicit peals of laughter from an embarrassed audience. But not Liza. Nobody but Liza can get away with the kind of highly stylized performance style that she thrives on. How does she get away with it? Why don't we laugh? Why do we, in fact, cheer and exult in her excess? It's more than her umbilical link to Judy. She's way past that now. Liza is a performer in her own show business bubble, entertaining by rules that only apply to herself alone. A legend, you see, cannot—or, at least, should not—be reviewed except through the star-lit panorama of her own history. That said, looking at her new show at The Palace, Liza struts on that storied stage in what is surely one of the greatest triumphs of her indelible career.

The first act of her current concert offers a striking mix of material that ranges from old favorites like "Maybe This Time" (Kander & Ebb), and of course "Cabaret" (Kander & Ebb), with the added dash of new material in the form of "I Would Never Leave You" (Billy Stritch/Johnny Rodgers/Brian Lane Green). But the centerpiece of the first act is her stunning recreation of her mother's "Palace Medley" that melded past and present with the white-hot heat of her emotional performance.

The question about the second act was only how could she top that medley from the first. She did so with a loving generosity that was as palpable as it was entertaining. Evoking the memory of her godmother, Liza recreated Kay Thompson's famous nightclub act that featured the Williams Brothers, in their current incarnation played by Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander, Jim Caruso, and Tiger Martina. With precision dancing, tight harmonies, and stylish staging by the show's director/choreographer, Ron Lewis, this section of Liza's concert offers something uniquely collaborative because the boys are not merely decoration but an integral and highly entertaining part of the concert. The reason Liza is so particularly successful in recreating both the "Palace Medley" and Kay Thompson's nightclub act is that she has a direct link to that old school show business style. In that vein, she is, in fact, the very last example of the kind of show business entertainer who literally lives to perform.

In addition to the wonderful high-stepping entertainment of the Kay Thompson section of the show, Liza's patter creates the image of Kay Thompson as a latter day Mame. Thompson clearly took her Godmother duties seriously and was a major influence on Liza both in terms of giving the young woman confidence in herself as well as providing a much healthier role model than Liza's mother ever did. After all, Thompson was a remarkably successful woman in a wide variety of careers including but not limited to actress, nightclub singer, musical arranger, and author—and she did it all without falling apart. Liza's affection and admiration for Thompson infuses the concert's second act and gives a breathtaking and altogether fresh insight into Liza's personality. What we see is a generous woman looking back and essentially sharing her love for Kay Thompson the only way she knows how: by performing. What we also see is the last of a dying breed; a performer who is still at the top of her game as a dynamic entertainer.

Road Show: Let's not quibble—it's Sondheim!

The bar on Stephen Sondheim is raised so high that it's a mark of theatrical heroism on his part to attempt any new work. After all, how can the man possibly compete with the iconic image of himself as the greatest living composer of our time? He can't. So even as critics debate how high or low in the Sondheim canon Road Show, this long-troubled musical, should be rated, stand this musical up against the work of everyone else out there and there and, frankly, there is no comparison. It's Sondheim. The music is complex and compelling. The lyrics are bright, piercing and altogether brilliant. John Weidman's book is smart and incisive, telling us, with the Sondheim's score, something about the American character that could not be timelier.

This picaresque tale of two brothers—a huckster and a brilliant architect—both of them trying in their own ways to ride the capitalist tiger in the early 20th century, is a dark, almost savage, musical comedy. The show owes much to a number of other great artists: Brecht, Beckett, and more contemporaneously, William Finn come to mind. But in the end it all comes out Sondheim. The subject matter might be dark in the manner of Assassins (The Public, it turns out, is just the right place for this essentially non-commercial musical), but the score will be its legacy. "The Game," "Isn't He Something," and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," are gems by any standard. And the rest of the score is not far behind.

John Doyle's direction (and set design) give the story focus, pace, and more than one meaningful arc. The cast is superb. Like a Woody Allen movie, a Sondheim musical draws the best people even for the smallest of roles. But at the top Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani as the two Miszner Brothers are sensational. Cerveris as a man driven to take chances for the inherit thrill of "The Game," and Gemignani investing his role as the more responsible (and talented) brother with a heartbreaking sense of inevitable doom even in the midst of success. Both sing and act their roles to perfection.

Sondheim gives us a musical that purposefully takes us into the last century's Great Depression just as we enter this century's Great Depression. If we pay attention, we just might learn something ...

Shrek: the actors are better than the show

Dreamworks has come to Broadway to get their piece of the musical theatre pie with their ambitious production of Shrek: The Musical. The beloved animated ogre is damned lucky to be played by Brian d'Arcy James who gives him genuine human humor, not to mention humanity in his sterling performance. Sutton Foster continues to build her remarkable canon of great musical comedy performances. Her Fiona, Shrek's love interest, is as wonderfully scrappy as her Jo in Little Women, if only more colorfully costumed. We're going on about the performances, including Daniel Breaker's hilariously gay take on Donkey, and Christopher Seiber's knock-out comic performance as the show's villainous Lord Farquaad, because the actors are ultimately far superior to the show they're in.

Shrek doesn't fail for want of trying: you can see the budget in this production, most notably and memorably in the set and costume design, both by the wildly talented Tim Hatley. And give director Jason Moore and the folks at Dreamworks credit for putting the best possible cast on the Broadway Theatre stage. Not just the leads, but also the supporting players throughout the cast are some of musical theatre's most talented people.

It's easy to say the book by David Lindsay-Abaire fails because the animated story doesn't quite transfer to the stage as one might hope, but there is the suspicion here that the book would have worked far better had Jeanine Tesori's music and Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics given them something to lean on. The score, without doubt, is the musical's biggest disappointment. The music is, at best, bland. The lyrics match the music. What a shame.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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