01:00 AM EST on Thursday, November 20, 2008
BY RICK MASSIMOJournal Pop Music Writer
WOONSOCKET — Singing like a grande dame and jumping around like someone half her age, Liza Minnelli began a four-night stand at the Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Center last night with a preview of the show that’s coming to New York next month, and she proved that the fundamentals — her gutsy, brassy, strong voice and her irrepressible enthusiasm — were still in place.
Starting with “Teach Me Tonight,” the first half of the show saw Minnelli straddling the line between concert performance and musical theater as she ran through an inspired collection of show tunes and standards as well as her hits, adopting a collection of characters to inhabit the songs at the same time. She not only acted the part of Roxie Hart while singing “I’m My Own Best Friend,” from Chicago, but also the way she convinced Bob Fosse to let her substitute for an injured Gwen Verdon. “I find the woman in the next song’s choice profoundly admirable,” she said before shooting an imaginary philanderer with a prop gun before “If.”
The first half included the new “At the Palace,” leading into the rest of the new show, but the highlight might have been Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man a Man?,” a lonely, forlorn tango about forbidden, unrequited passion that was an exception to the usual boundless optimism of the songs she chooses. Minnelli introduced it by recalling a time when “You could be put in jail for a certain lifestyle. Some people call that time ‘now.’ ” Of course, “Cabaret” ended the set.
Throughout, Minnelli charmed the nearly sold-out house with her good nature and exuberance, unafraid to wipe her nose, muss her hair, breathe hard or recall the passage of time. “Remember how I used to sit down in the second act?,” she said while sitting down during the first, to do smoldering versions of the ballads “Maybe This Time” and “He’s Funny That Way”; “Remember how I used to go down on one knee for that part? Forget it!” she said during “Mammy.”
There were a few sound problems in the first half, as the sound system couldn’t reproduce the high end in Minnelli’s voice, leaving tongue-twisting songs such as “If” nearly incomprehensible. They were fixed later on.
The second half primarily consisted of Minnelli’s tribute to her godmother, Kay Thompson, who was a singer, vocal coach, arranger and nightclub performer. Minnelli hoofed it up with four men portraying The Williams Brothers, Thompson’s backing quartet, and they sang Thompson’s own complicated and jazzy vocal harmonies. The breakneck tempo of “Come Join the Jubilee” was particularly impressive as Minnelli, 62, and dancers fairly threw themselves around the stage, and the “brothers” got their own number — the Ira Gershwin song Minnelli was named after.
In between the songs, Minnelli recalled Thompson’s personal and professional influence on herself and others (“She taught me how to sing,” Lena Horne reportedly said), dating to Minnelli’s first show-biz appearance, leading through her difficult times (“I was divorcing — I don’t know, someone,” one story began) and through to Thompson’s last words to Minnelli (“Goodbye darling,” she said as Minnelli left for a concert; “have a happy everything!”)
If you saw the show Minnelli gave in January at the Providence Performing Arts Center, it wasn’t much different, but it was still one of the best examples of old-school song and dance you’re likely to find. And the affection Minnelli had for Thompson, who lived with Minnelli until she died in 1998, was obvious: “I don’t know how to explain it,” Minnelli said of Thompson’s musical mastery; “I just know how to do it.” She then finished up with “My Mammy” and her trademark “New York, New York” — a typically rousing version that let Minnelli’s pure optimism shine through.
Minnelli performs again tonight, Saturday and Sunday at the Stadium.