Having spent his life spreading joy with his outlandish costumes and unique style of playing the piano in concert halls, on television and as the consummate Las Vegas act, Liberace has returned from the dead to set the story straight, so to speak, because he feels redundant in heaven where everyone’s just perpetually happy.
So begins “Liberace!” the one-man show written by Brent Hazelton with original musical composition and arrangements by Jack Forbes Wilson and developed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2010, currently on offer at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo as part of the 2018 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.
Part storytelling and reminiscing, part transfixing piano concert, part splendid impersonation, the show is much like the performances that made Liberace a household name, the butt of comedians’ jokes, and the highest paid entertainer in the 20th century. He both laughed and cried “all the way to the bank,” a phrase he coined in response to the often scathing reviews of his “gaudy playing style” and what they described as “low class entertainment for middle class folks.”
The mean-spirited critics sounded an awful lot like the bullies from his Wisconsin childhood who tormented him for being effeminate and more interested in music and cooking than sports. And all of them helped Liberace build the wildly flamboyant persona of “Mr. Showmanship,” the “one-man Disneyland” that allowed him to laugh at himself first. He created a caricature of himself with trademark glitter, glitz and bedazzled feathery, ruffled, shimmering costumes combined with folksy connection to his audience and the music he described as “classical music with the boring parts left out.”
He quipped, “A little Beethoven is better than none.” And ultimately, for him it was all about making people happy and creating an exchange of love — whether it could be definitively described as artistry or simply entertainment, who cares?
The one-man show gets at the heart of this peculiarly American icon, and the actor and fine musician David Maiocco, directed by Kathy Mulay, portrays him with extraordinary likeness in voice and gesture to the point that it practically feels like being audience to the man himself. He captures the excess here, not just with the fabulous costumes (recreated magnificently by Jason Parry and Cathy Mason) — but also with a perpetual and often forced grin, repetitive hands on hips and bent wrists. He maintains incredibly high energy and increasingly warms up over the course of the two-and-a-half hour show, bantering with the audience, bringing them onstage with him, and instigating rollicking sing alongs.
He also brings surprising darkness and depth in the second act, expressing the fear and grief of a man perpetually on trial for his perceived sexuality and gender identity before that was a concept — as well as his overwhelming need for love and the devastating betrayal of a greedy lover not long before dying of AIDS in a shroud of secrecy.
It’s a show both tragic and wildly entertaining, and this production impressively reaches full expression of the highs and the lows.
Maiocco is a terrifically accomplished pianist who plays a gorgeous white baby grand center stage in the intimate space of the theater with a livestream of his hands playing the keys shown on a television screen. His playing is made more poignant by stories that set up the songs, and is, at times, dazzling. His interpretations of “Three Little Fishes” through Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss is one of many highlights.
Also taking center stage are the fabulous costumes on display not just on his body, but behind curtains and on pedestals, highlighted by Jeff Lindquist’s set and Jason Frink’s lighting design complete with sconces and candelabra.
Liberace was a strange, wonderful and perhaps misunderstood pop icon who paved the way for others, particularly gender-bending Glam-rockers such as KISS, David Bowie and Elton John. His story is uniquely American, and coming to understand it through an entertaining, albeit long, performance gives insight not just into the man himself, but also the culture that created him, for better and for worse.