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.
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.