Unsettling and at times painful to watch, Liza Minnelli’s return to the concert stage in the wake of much-publicized troubles on Broadway and subsequent throat surgery can be summed up in a word: ill-advised. Clearly not at the top of her form, with a hoarse, transient singing voice that too frequently substitutes a giggle (or a whisper) for a note, Minnelli does a disservice to herself — and a paying audience — by delivering less than her usual high standard. Much less.
In what appears to be a bizarre case of public self-punishment, the world-class entertainer bullies and prods her obviously ailing chops through number after number, and even though the familiar ones have been modulated to accommodate her current condition, she often appears to be straining — if not hurting — to make a semblance of music. The question is, why? Rest and regeneration would seem to be the remedy here.
This time out the rundown, in addition to the expected Kander & Ebb faves, features a wide assortment of different (for Minnelli) material and lengthy assists from the not-very-remarkable Cortes Alexander Trio.
A pair of “Gigi” tunes (in tribute to Dad, director Vincente Minnelli), “Let Me Sing,” “My Ship,” Peter Allen’s “All the Lives of Me” and a smattering from her latest album, “Gently,” are the new entries. The highlight of the first half is the Kay Thompson-originated “I Love a Violin,” a lively, stylish number that, due mostly to the strength of the material, is deftly pulled off in concert with the trio.
The low point is an unfortunate Fosse-esque dance routine to “Fascinating Rhythm” in which the bloated, too-zaftig Minnelli, replete with pink bowler, valiantly struts around in a sort of impaired slow motion (with a noticeable limp, apparently the result of hip-replacement surgery). Again, painful. And again, why?
Second half serves up the Kander & Ebb fare (“Ring Them Bells,” “Cabaret,” “Liza With a Z,” “Mein Herr,” “Money,” “Maybe This Time,” “The World Goes ‘Round” and the obligatory “New York, New York”) and the album selections (“It Had to Be You,” “Some Cats Know,” “Embraceable You”).
It was only the final moment that lifted the show out of its rut: In honor of what would’ve been her mother’s 75th birthday, Minnelli reneged on an old “promise” and performed a Judy Garland standard, “You Made Me Love You.” Sung a cappella with obvious inspiration, it was beautifully rendered with a genuine sentiment that transcended any vocal flaws.
In solo spots, the Cortes Alexander Trio perform accomplished vocal juggling on several tunes including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Stormy Weather,” offering a blend of voices that, while well-harmonized, is too short on richness and depth.
Minnelli’s costumes — save an ungainly white, bathrobe-like gown and a particularly unflattering tuxedo — were an assortment of garish smocks that could pass for off-the-rack from Wal-Mart’s maternity department, even though credited to Donna Langman, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Halston.
When a performer is capable of creating magic onstage, as Minnelli has been known to do throughout her 35-year career, it is particularly disappointing when mediocrity is fobbed off as warranted or even acceptable. It says a lot that in the most remarkable moment amid this pastiche, Minnelli actually stopped the show three-quarters of the way through to redeliver a note she herself deemed “not good enough.” It was a fleeting glimpse of self-awareness that was way too little, and came far too late.