Times Staff Writer

Just before Liza Minnelli casually strolled onstage without introduction at the Pacific Amphitheatre, the crowd gave an impromptu ovation when it spotted Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson being escorted to their seats by a phalanx of bodyguards.

But it was an indication of the power of Minnelli's emotionally triumphant show on Friday (the first of two at the Pacific) that 90 minutes later she had so captivated her fans that nary a head turned when Liz and The Glove quietly headed backstage.

Obliquely acknowledging her highly publicized stay at the Betty Ford drug treatment center, the singer-actress boasted tearfully, "I'm happy, I'm strong and I've never felt better in my life."

She proved it with a performance that was dramatic without becoming melodramatic, heartfelt yet not maudlin and theatrical but not campy. In other words, cabaret pop at its best.

For the 20-song set, she was backed by a versatile 12-man ensemble that generally stuck to big-band instrumentation; with a few switches in the woodwinds and the use of a synthesized string section, the group occasionally doubled as an orchestra.

Wearing a shiny turquoise mini-dress, Minnelli opened with Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up," which set the upbeat tone of the evening and underscored her victory over adversity in its first verse: "Nothing is impossible I have found, for when my chin is on the ground / I pick myself, dust myself off, and start all over again."

That led into Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," which she sang at a moderate, freely expressive tempo that was a welcome contrast to the many bouncy versions of that number.

Another medley incorporated sections of Elton John's "Sad Songs" and the Gershwins' "The Man I Love." It's a shame Minnelli only used a portion of the latter song, for with it she projected the ability to plunge headlong into a classic and rework it into a personal statement, rather than sounding as if she were simply reciting music and lyrics. So while she may not have reached the heights of existential heartache that Billie Holiday did--what singer could?--Minnelli's approach was far more touching than, for instance, Linda Ronstadt's musically accurate but overly respectful delivery of such pop standards.

In an attempt to show that she can also handle contemporary pop, Minnelli devoted a long production sequence to versions of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (passable, but lacking the zany charm of Lauper's record) and Madonna's "Material Girl."

Minnelli often put her acting skills to work in establishing the characters in the musicals from which the songs were taken. Her characterizations were never more effective than in rescuing Fred Ebb and Paul Klein's "London Town," patterned after those English ditties sung by traveling troubadours. Minnelli began this potentially cutesy tune with the exuberance of wide-eyed youth. But by the end, in an almost subliminal shift, she had adopted a melancholy maturity that turned a disposable novelty song into a fetching tale of lost innocence.

In a tip of the hat to her mother, Minnelli closed with a transcendent reading of "But the World Goes 'Round," capping a show that could hardly have been a more satisfying homecoming.

The Footlockers, a Los Angeles-based three-member dance ensemble that gave Minnelli additional support on her dance numbers, opened with a 25-minute exhibition of "locking" and other street-dance styles that the trio combined with gymnastics and martial arts movements.

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