The crowd was growing restless at the Hollywood Bowl for Liza Minnelli to take the stage. An announcement explaining that there was some “technical difficulty” didn’t prevent an outbreak of rhythmic clapping or a wildfire of snarky speculation on the precise nature of the snafu.
Was it really a sound problem or had Minnelli suffered one of her, define the word as you like, relapses? Her reassurance to the audience from offstage that she was here and dying to perform hardly settled the matter.
The title of Saturday night’s bill was “Confessions.” Could the dirty secret be that she was in no condition to go on?
Only a fool — or a Scrooge-like theater critic — would count Minnelli out. The microphone issue patched together as best as it could be, she appeared before us in her theatrical uniform (black-sequined top, black pants, a pink scarf fluttering off her shoulder) and summoned the bravery and resolve of glorious campaigns past.
Like a retired general returned to the battlefield, the unretireable Minnelli owed her success on Saturday as much to her signature strengths as to her often parodied weaknesses. She was, in short, better in control of her limitations, navigating around them with far more assurance than she did when she appeared at the Bowl in 2009, an anxious, exhausted and at times incoherent shadow of her former self.
Accompanied by a bewitching septet led by her musical director, pianist and stalwart friend Billy Stritch, Minnelli might not have been in the best voice, but she sang incredibly movingly, laying bare the emotional ache and awe that inspired her set of songs to be written in the first place.
The best theatrical singers understand lyrics the way the best actors understand characters — as something to inhabit, live through. And Minnelli has a gift for magnifying lyrical feelings that have an obvious resonance with her life and career. When singing about setbacks, comebacks and all forms or resiliency, especially of the romantic kind, she became a Method performer, reopening old wounds and transforming the pain into poignant pizazz.
Kander & Ebb, the legendary songwriting duo of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, have been very good to her in this regard, providing her with numbers that allow her to do what she does best, picking herself up when there’s no one else to do it (“My Own Best Friend” from “Chicago”), reveling in the decadence that is the outsider’s revenge for being left out (“Cabaret”) and finding hope in love despite the seemingly hopeless odds (“Maybe This Time”).
She started off swingingly with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” demonstrating that sharp musicianship can more than compensate for aging pipes. Minnelli’s belting voice doesn’t have the same snap. She sometimes reached for effects that, conspicuously in her “New York, New York” finale, eluded her by a sizable distance. So what? She gave it a second try when she felt she came up unacceptably short, and the image of a beloved diva struggling to reproduce her old magic actually added to the magic of her interpretations.
“Liza With a Z,” the novelty number that introduced her brand, is now an occasion for nostalgia, an older person perusing photos of her peppy younger self. Audience and artist indulged each other here, further cementing the bond between them.
Broken up over the recent death of Marvin Hamlisch, she kept praising his arrangements of songs, particularly those on her earliest albums. The stale joke she attributed to him barely elicited an audible chuckle from the thousands in attendance, but the moment was pure Liza in its mix of goofy awkwardness and genuine love.
Anyway, whenever the evening, curtailed because of the delayed start and performed without an intermission, threatened to go off the rails, a shout of adoration from a fan would get things back on track. Minnelli has been allotted by the showbiz gods an endless supply of do-overs, and she acknowledged both her good fortune and hard knocks with a healthy dose of ironic wit.
When singing a line in “Cabaret” about the effect of pills and liquor, she wasn’t afraid to insert a deadpan pause. And as she lugged a chair around the stage to rest her weary bones, she quipped about her broken-down dancer’s body, saying she belonged equally to Dorothy and the Tin Man. Her choreography was reduced to mostly sedentary Bob Fosse flourishes, but as with her abraded voice, she can still conjure the illusion of a Broadway showstopper with her timeless theatrical vocabulary.
“Confessions,” I’ll confess, left me feeling older but also a little wiser and, especially during her a cappella encore of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” more deeply appreciative of a star who glimmers like no one else.