Liza Minnelli’s monthlong stand at Broadway’s Palace Theater is not a routine return to the concert stage, as both she and her admiring audience are anxiously aware. With endearing if startling bluntness, Minnelli turns to a sidekick at one point in the evening, and in a scripted bit of interplay that nevertheless has the ring of truth, admits, “I’m making a comeback!”
Comebacks are a family legacy, of course. The Palace itself hosted one of her mother Judy Garland’s most legendary rallies, when Garland returned triumphantly to the New York stage in 1951 after being fired from MGM. Thus family ghosts attend Minnelli’s new concert, and not just because the show, titled “Minnelli on Minnelli,” is a tribute to the movies of her father Vincente Minnelli.
There’s something ineffably strange and sad and moving about the manner in which Minnelli’s life and career have echoed her mother’s. What the performer is coming back from are the same kinds of troubles that plagued Garland, health and addiction problems that threatened to dim and even extinguish Minnelli’s vocal gifts — the talent that is her other great inheritance from her mother.
So let us judge “Minnelli on Minnelli” first as a comeback, a chance for Minnelli to reassert her viability as an entertainer before a loyal and ardent fan base, to vanquish demons and erase tabloid headlines.
As such it’s a creditable, courageous achievement. Minnelli gracefully received salvos of affection from the audience throughout the evening: “We love you, Liza!” “Welcome back, Liza!” And she gave a warm, energetic performance, touring breezily through an eclectic songbook culled from pictures ranging from 1946’s “Ziegfeld Follies” to “The Band Wagon” to “Gigi” to 1970’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Setting aside the additional affection engendered by the personal nature of the show, Minnelli’s decision to frame the concert as a tribute to her father’s movies has another advantage: It allows her to perform material new to her, and thus not risk comparisons with past performances of her vocally punishing standard repertoire.
For the truth is Minnelli’s voice has deteriorated. All voices do, of course. Minnelli’s, however, shows the particular wear that comes both from years of ill tending and more years of hard work at full throttle (yet another maternal legacy: an unstinting stage presence). Control is uneven, some notes, frankly, escape her entirely, and the husky timbre has become more pronounced.
But she still has a unique instrument that couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s, as well as decisive, dramatic phrasing and distinctive elocution. Pure vocal magic is sparse but real, particularly as Minnelli warms up over the course of the evening.
The first act of “Minnelli on Minnelli” is the weakest. The production, written and directed by Minnelli’s longtime friend and collaborator Fred Ebb, has been padded with material for a sextet of male singer-dancers.
As they perform John DeLuca’s uninspired choreography and harmonize on familiar songs from “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “The Band Wagon,” these hapless chorus boys lend the show an unfortunate resemblance to one of those Vegas tributes to Tinseltown with names like “Hello, Hollywood, Hello!” Minnelli disappears for whole numbers, either to rest her voice or change into one of Bob Mackie’s many flattering, glitter-drenched ensembles.
The star is more appealingly showcased in the second act, offering a groovy, smoldering reading of the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm” and a typically anthemic rendition of Lerner and Loewe’s “What Did I Have,” from “On a Clear Day.” When Minnelli catches and holds a climactic note, the thrill is still there.
Ebb has also supplied clever new lyrics for “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” from “Gigi,” allowing Liza to mordantly chide the excesses of her youth: “How nice to go home and lock the door/And not drag my butt to 54.” The encore was a new Kander & Ebb song, a tribute to Vincente Minnelli called “I Thank You” that found Liza, touchingly, in her best voice of the evening.
The second act also includes film clips from a quartet of Minnelli films and a slide show allowing the audience a peek at photos of the young Liza with various showbiz luminaries.
The audience cooed on cue, and later sat in rapt, affectionate silence as Minnelli sang along with her mother on “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Indeed, “Minnelli on Minnelli” is ultimately as much support group as it is a concert. It may seem odd to ask audiences to pay for the privilege of providing an entertainer with emotional succor, but Liza’s fans seem eager to give back a small measure of the pleasure they’ve been given by the performer over the years. Minnelli is one of the last practitioners of a particular strain of showbiz that draws on this mutual, personal give and take: We sustain our favorites with our love and loyalty as they have sustained us with their artistry. Call it a healthier kind of co-dependence.