By Liz Smith
"I’d walk a million miles, for one of those smiles, from my Mammmmmmmyyyy!!”It was goose-bump central as Liza Minnelli stood alone onstage, beautifully lit, drenched with sweat and belted out the old Al Jolson standard. Liza has performed this before, always to great effect — come on, she’s singing a song about “my mammy,” and we all know who Liza’s mammy was. But this time, she sang it on the stage of the great Palace Theater on old Broadway, where her mother had triumphed years ago. The choice of this song was even more powerful, because Liza had also decided to include in her new act Judy Garland’s famous “Palace” medley. Yes, it was an obvious banking on nostalgia, but it was in no way a cheap channeling of mom, with whom she shares so many personal and artistic similarities. It is the act of a wise woman embracing her history, honoring it. I’m not ashamed to say — I cried.This new show, “Liza’s at the Palace,” also pays spectacular homage to her godmother, Kay Thompson — a chanteuse deluxe, a great innovator in nightclubs who did things onstage that had never been seen before. (There are also poignant, from-the-heart anecdotes about how Thompson gave Liza, who grew up far too swiftly, much needed confidence.)I wrote the other day I’d be sitting in the audience, thrilled but wracked with nerves, because thrills and nerves are what Liza brings onstage. It’s always a tightrope act.You root for her, but swear you can’t be moved by her again, you’ve seen her little ways — the gasping, giggling mannerisms, the “acting” that goes on a bit too long. But damn it all, this girl (I don’t care if she’s 62, Liza is the eternal gamine!) pulls it off, again and again.She grows in power and control as the show progresses, which seems to defy logic. She trots out many of the hits she must perform, or the house will riot — “Maybe This Time,” “The World Goes Round," "Cabaret,” “New York, New York.” I always think I could live forever without hearing Liza sing this latter number. But by the time she got to it, she had so energized herself and the audience, it was as if she’d composed the famous Manhattan shout-out right on the spot. And Liza’s thoughtful tribute to John Kander, who wrote for her, was so simple and perfect!Her opening number was “Teach Me Tonight” on which she sounded very sexy and Lena Horne-ish. Her second was a blatant appeal to her fanatical admirers, “I Would Never Leave You.” She is in superb shape, slender, beautifully dressed and the lighting is a miracle. Onstage, even from the second row, Liza appears about 35. And vibrantly healthy. If she doesn’t move with the agility of former times, it is close enough; her command of her body is an astounding act of will. And she makes fun of age and exhaustion in a charming manner.The show looks rich. Director/choreographer Ron Lewis spent quite a lot of money to showcase his legend. And it is perfectly executed and rehearsed. There’s not one careless, sloppy moment. It is a seamless night of entertainment.——————————But for me — and others who don’t know “squat” about Kay Thompson — Liza’s second act, in which she recreates some of her mentor’s nightclub numbers, are the artistic heart and soul of the show.I saw Kay Thomspon’s act with the Williams Brothers. (One of whom was Andy Williams, who went on to his own singular fame.) It was fantastic; Kay was fantastic, a “life force” as Liza describes her — all things outré, soigné, bawdy, grand, inventive.
Liza’s three “Kay numbers” — “Jubilee Time,” Clap Yo’ Hands” and “I Love a Violin” — transported me back to a golden era in live performing. Although Liza emerged onstage, wearing a glittery little blouse, sheer black hose and sexy boots, she got right down to business “doing Kay” — the sweeping gestures, the whooping sounds, the lazy drawl that shot up and down unexpectedly. Liza is given glorious support by Cortes Alexander, Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina and Johnny Rodgers as the “new” Williams Brothers. These guys are out of this world, so sexy, assured, amusing, all equipped with rich melding voices, and dance skills to die for. Liza’s old friend, pianist, arranger Billy Stritch, also jumps in on one of the numbers. He is great too! (It was into Billy’s arms that an exhausted Liza collapsed during the thunderous, endless ovation and screams for “more, more, more!” Their love for one another was obvious. And then Liza recovered, and gave ‘em more, more more!)The emotion, the history, the tenacity, the glamour and vibrancy of Liza Minnelli — just when you think she has finally depleted, like a great oil well sputtering down, out comes another gusher. The smell of greasepaint was thick in the air, from the moment she took the stage — “will she be alright?” — to her last triumphant pose as the curtains closed — “Oh, my God, she did it, she did it!”Liza Minnelli — they broke, stepped on and ground up the mold when they made her. Her life and career has been a roller coaster, and perhaps will be again. Right now she is standing in the brightest light, at her best, giving and receiving the love she values most.Liza closes, finally, with another of her mother’s classic songs, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The sound from the audience was one collective sigh. Please don’t miss Liza in her three weeks at the Palace. It is magic. It is theater. It is showbiz beyond the pale. It doesn’t get any better.