Liza Minnelli played the Hollywood Bowl over the weekend, and the incessant gigglers in the audience were clearly nervous about which Minnelli was going to show up. Would it be the one whose latest Broadway outing, "Liza's at the Palace," won a Tony or the erratic Minnelli of "Minnelli on Minnelli," the show in honor of her director father, Vincente Minnelli, in which she tried to make another one of her comebacks before she was theatrically fit?
The answer turned out to be both.
This two-night engagement, straightforwardly titled "An Evening With Liza Minnelli" and featuring pianist and musical director Billy Stritch, a sumptuous-sounding orchestra conducted by drummer Mike Berkowitz and a heat wave that had Minnelli worried she might wilt, flaunted some of the best and the worst of its inimitable star.
Her belter's voice was unreliable on Friday night, booming one moment then reduced to a croak the next. Her acting had a bizarre, otherworldly quality, as though she were tuning into a subtext that only she could comprehend. There was a dithering aspect to her stage presence, with her signature anxious laugh cropping up when it seemed least called for. Her dancing was curtailed to a few gestures, such as pounding her fists on her hips or turning her back in dramatic flourishes. And her stamina was weakened on this hot evening to the point that she resorted to her chair after just a handful of songs.
In short, the only thing that remained intact was her singular genius for being "Liza." And that was more than enough to galvanize the vast majority of the Bowl's audience, who cheered her on in the knowledge that this diva's act is a two-way street -- the more audible the adulation, the more likely she'll rise to some semblance of her former greatness.
In that regard, you can say that Minnelli takes the encore principle to a new level, insisting the crowd enthuse not just for its nightcap but also for its main course and dessert. Yet there's nothing overbearing about Minnelli's persona. In fact, she wears her aching vulnerability on her sequined sleeve, turning the audience into her collective caretaker, if not her enabler. "Most of my family has joined the choir," she awkwardly quipped when a person shouted out some affection during a rocky patch in the first half. "So I guess you're my family now."
Her devoted following erupted in glee. But the love fest couldn't undo the shock of Minnelli's careening unsteadiness during her first two numbers, "Teach Me Tonight" and "I Would Never Leave You." It brought to mind Peggy Lee at the end of her career, being carried out on a kind of throne and flubbing lyrics, and Rosemary Clooney, gasping for oxygen midsong in her later years. Both of those legends somehow found ways to resurrect the old magic when I caught them at the twilight of their talents. Would Minnelli similarly be able to redeem herself?
She seemed to exhaust her cardio endurance with a fun if incoherently antic version of "If You Hadn't But You Did" and a lively though ultimately cryptic interpretation of "What Makes a Man a Man." There was some breathless patter about her bum romantic luck that invoked ex-husband David Gest and ignited awkward tittering in the audience. But when she settled into her chair for "Maybe This Time," she connected her own fragile journey through stardom to the wish for love in a way that lifted the number's poignancy out of the music like a fireworks display.
In the second act, she brought some effervescent jazz to "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "My Mammy." "Liza With a Z" may have been just a pale copy of the cute novelty number it once was, but her handling of "Cabaret," scratchier than in her Oscar-winning turn, would probably have jibed better with Christopher Isherwood's original conception of Sally Bowles. And this performer could talk "New York, New York" and tempt you to hop a plane.
Vocally, Minnelli could never hold a candle to her mother, Judy Garland, a truth reconfirmed by her nonetheless rousing "Palace Medley." But triple-threat icons who have been at it for more than half a century no longer have to prove their worthiness night after night. Basking in her presence is all that's needed to beckon the ghosts of a more glamorous theatrical past.
Which brings to mind an indisputable truth: If Minnelli didn't exist, show queens would have to invent her. Long may her razzle-dazzle, fabulous even when faded, live on.