Monday, November 2, 2015

Theater Review: Liberace! -- Ivoryton

Daryl Wagner. Photo: Courtesy of Ivoryton Playhouse
The Candelabra Burn Brightly for This Star as Liberace Tickles the Ivoryton
By Lauren Yarger
Impressionist Daryl Wagner gives a stunning performance as entertainer Liberace! at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Wagner, who worked for the real-life “Mr. Showmanship” in Las Vegas as a pianist and singer, has played him for more than 20 years across the world in the renowned “Legends In Concert” show, as well as many productions that he arranged and produced himself. With a script by Brent Hazelton, Liberace! is a satisfying medley of impersonation, piano playing and biography --  a combination Director Jacqueline Hubbard said was difficult to cast until she saw Wagner.

Between the 1950s and ’70s, Władziu Valentino Liberace (known as Lee to his friends) was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and the toast of Las Vegas. In a plot device where the entertainer returns from heaven for one more day to reflect on his life, we discover a young boy who studies classical piano to appease his unloving, judgmental father. He succeeds, but doesn’t find personal satisfaction in his music until he develops his own style, combining classical with fun – to the delight of his audiences.

Against a setting of three arched curtained areas surrounded by standing and hanging candelabra (set design by Daniel Nischan), Wagner sits at a grand piano center stage to play musical numbers as diverse as a Rachmaninov concerto to "I'll Be Seeing You," "Three Little Fishies," and "The Boogie Woogie."

Liberace’s life story is played in between notes and we discover why the entertainer adopted his outlandish, flamboyant costumes (provided by Wagner), the candelabrum that always graced his piano, and the devastation he feels behind probes into his private word, which included closeted homosexual relationships and death from AIDs-related complications.

Wagner embodies the entertainer and looks and sounds very much like the real Liberace. The script incorporates some fun audience participation opportunities and Wagner seems as much at ease with his fans as Mr. Showmanship did.

While entertaining and engaging, Hazelton’s script, developed in cooperation with the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, makes the mistake of many biographical stage plays – trying to include every possible moment from the subject’s life. The result is a script that is far too long at two hours and 45 minutes and which seems drag for almost half an hour as additional biographical details get tacked on after Liberace performs a sensational Gershwin medley which should be the ending.

Wagner is not to be missed, though. The actor, who served as resident conductor at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and conducted Bernadette Peters in the national tour of Dames at Sea, gives a polished glimpse into the world of the beloved, besparkled and tormented entertainer we knew simply as Liberace.

Liberace! tickles the Ivoryton through Nov. 15 at the playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.. Tickets $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.


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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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