Live Music: Liza Minnelli at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

Call it an odd event at the Hollywood Bowl last night.  Even though it didn’t exactly start out that way.

Any appearance by Liza Minnelli is usually a big draw.  And this one was no exception — the Bowl jammed with her devoted followers and cries of “We love you, Liza!” echoing through the night.

But that was after the program started, which didn’t happen until 40 minutes past the scheduled 8 p.m. curtain.  The cause, according to the L. A. Phil’s Public Relations office was “Unforeseen technical difficulties.”  And the net result was a performance without an intermission, and minus a few originally scheduled songs.

Liza Minnelli

None of which seemed to bother Minnelli, who first contacted her audience via a backstage microphone, apologizing for the delay and expressing her eagerness to be on stage. When she finally arrived, greeted by a roar of enthusiastic applause, she was her familiar, high voltage self.  Kicking off the program (as well as her shoes) with a jaunty romp through “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” she then dug into the substance of her show.  Sub-titled “Confessions,” it was a musical odyssey through Minnelli’s life and times – much of it celebrating her relationship with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, as well as her sadness over the recent passing of close friend and creative associate Marvin Hamlisch.

Once Minnelli was fully launched into her program via tunes such as “Here I’ll Stay” and “Liza With A ‘Z’,” however, her performance recalled an appearance at the Pantages in 1997.  Reviewing that program for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote, “Liza Minnelli’s voice wasn’t exactly her best friend…at the Pantages….”   Later I added that “…she instead emphasized her acting skills, her body language and her story telling powers.”

To a considerable extent the same was true of last night’s Bowl program.  Minnelli’s voice responded poorly to her efforts to reproduce both the intimate, warm tones and the theatrical belting that have always been such vital elements in her singing style.  In a program reaching from such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to Minnelli classics  “Cabaret” and “New York, New York,” as well as “He’s a Tramp” from Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, it was her convincing dramatic abilities as well as her ever-dependable ability to tell a story, rather than her undependable vocalizing, that carried her through the show.

But Minnelli’s body language was something else.  In that 1997 review I described how she “uncoiled her arms and legs in every direction.”  Not so in this performance, in which she spent most of her time singing from a chair.

Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for sheer charisma, a quality Minnelli’s owned since she was a teen-ager.  And something to be said, too, for her ability to use the potent skills she still has to sell a song, rule a stage and endear an audience.  All of which she did last night with familiar Minnelli grace and style.

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6 Responses to Live Music: Liza Minnelli at the Hollywood Bowl

  1. Anne says:

    Good review; however, you fail to mention that she said herself that she’s recovering from a broken shoulder and that’s why she didn’t move around as much

  2. Erin says:

    I was there….Liza should continue her act….only in the shower! She sucked. Sorry, but she did. 40 minutes late was the first disappointment then she started to sing….then she started to sing…badly. Then she started to sing (badly) from A CHAIR. Thank GOD for the champagne and the usual beautiful night and crowd at the bowl.

  3. Alain says:

    Saw the very same show in Montreal on July 5th. She claimed a broken ankle. She might be accident prone? The show was great. Her voice was good; it’s a different voice now, very different but very good. BUT when she is tired or “recovering” she should not insist on the high notes. Would be nice if that lovely new voice sang to songs that have been lowered to her new range; it would sound effortless. Nevertheless, she is a rare and magnificent entertainer.

  4. DangerousFloater says:

    Just stumbled upon this thoughtful and (to my mind) refreshingly honest review. There’s more that ought to be said about Minnelli. Giving the woman due credit for being a compelling comedic performer (intentionally of unintentionally), she has not held-up well, not by a long shot. Part of the problem is the “elephant in the room” (or in the wings) that she really has never decided to properly address. Namely, she has traded from the very beginning upon the sort of twisted notion that she could get away with being a second-rate cipher of her mother. Minnelli may indeed get the term “legend” tossed around her shoulders, but there’s an asterisk there. Minnelli’s “peak” (as actress/star/commodity) was very brief and very trendy; her “importance” was confined to 1972 and conspicuously close to the death of her mother a few years earlier, and in a role (Cabaret) that showcased her conspicuously in the mold of the mother (song & dance showmanship) and a back-up TV special tie-in that she lip-synched. Cabaret in 1972, a curious TV special in 1972 and then … Studio 54 barfly, a couple of mediocre Broadway shows, and a (non-singing) supporting role in ‘Arthur’. A few fey, well-received guest slots on a non-mainstream TV series (Arrested Development). That and nightclubs. Oh, and a few more transparently desperate “grabs” to trade off the mother’s classic legacy (Liza Minnelli at Carnegie Hall, Liza’s at the Palace … both of which tanked as recordings, indicative of Minnelli’s undeserved “legend” — she was never a major popular American star in any way). Her leading-lady career was disastrous, outside of the fluke-ish ‘Cabaret’ (and, no, The Sterile Cuckoo does not count … nor does mega-flop New York, New York). She never had even one Top 40 American chart song (her mother had 19) and never a Top 10 chart album. What voice she did possess (strident, wobbly, and sour in her 1972 heyday) was wrecked and atrocious by the end of the 70s. Yet an increasingly clique-ish underground of disconnected stoners chose to throw every award possible at Minnelli, whenever possible, even for sub-par performances. To emphasize: this is not to outright disparage Minnelli, but to take-to-task those who even would dare to pretend that she could touch her multimedia-superstar genius-mother in terms of talent, much less accomplishments. Light years away. And I only mention it because very few people have the nerve to come out and say, “Wow. Minnelli has never been anything but a red-herring … A cipher of her mother even as she was blatantly trying to take the place of her mother.” If Minnelli (NOT a dancer, NOT a great singer, NOT a great film presence) had mined her one undeniable talent (wonderful gee-whiz comedy) she could have truly set herself apart as a legend. She does not get points for being a pale (and failed) imitation of the mother. Judy Garland, when she died in 1969 after 45 years of non-stop work and attendant addiction, did not have the benefit of the digital age (YouTube,DIgital Reissues, Video, Information Highway) to remind people that she died on top of being one of the biggest and most successfully *sustained* motion picture, stage, recording, radio stars of the century on a massive popular scale. Now, people of every generation have access to that and the enormity of her legacy has come full-circle. Minnelli, who hit her apex for one storied year in 1972 and who has been a very underperforming commodity/talent ever since, is not holding-up so well. Her catalogue is paltry, compared to that of the mother she ferociously attempts to imitate … but whom she rarely wants to acknowledge. Flat out: Minnelli should have stopped asking people to pay her to “sing” in concert formats 25 or 30 years ago. Judy Garland at her most half-dead, wizened, drunk & drugged would never perform in a “chair” and attempt to pass herself off as a legend. Minnelli wins on life expectancy. She may reach 70. Give her another Oscar.

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