LOU'S VIEWS: Many are talented, but few are stars ... what makes the difference?

January 22, 2011

As someone addicted to the arts, I’ve seen a lot of talent on stage. Every once in a while, though, I see star power.

What’s the difference? That’s what I’m trying to sort out after seeing Liza Minnelli, a star, perform with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Jan. 12.

A performer can be terrific without having star quality. I love seeing and hearing John Prine, but I’d hesitate a long time before calling him a star. John Belushi and Will Farrell? Sure. The current cast of Saturday Night Live? Not so much.

One thing I know about star power such as Minnelli’s is that it is a rare thing. In my experience, Jerry Lewis, who toured here in “Damn Yankees” about a decade ago, had it. Christopher Plummer and Derek Jacobi? No question. Stockard Channing, whom I’ve seen in three very different plays, had it every time. Bernadette Peters and Kevin Kline both had it, even when the shows around them didn’t shine so brightly.

It’s not just the popular arts. Itzhak Perlman didn’t show much star voltage at this year’s ISO season opener, but when I saw him with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the late 1980s, he radiated way up to the cheap seats. Dancer Savion Glover has it, even when he’s staring at the floor (see for yourself when he

plays the Palladium later this season). I wasn’t a fan of White Oak Dance Theatre when it played here, but its leader, Mikhail Barishnikov, had star power that was incandescent.

Is it necessary to be predisposed to a performer to sense star quality? Not in my experience.

One of the most radiant star performances I’ve ever seen—in a supporting role, no less—was Audra MacDonald in the Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel.” She was just as much a star when, better known, she appeared in “Master Class” (with the equally starry Zoe Caldwell). At my first Broadway show, I had no idea who the actor was that I was seeing in the title role. I had been looking forward to Frank Langella, whom I had seen talking about the play on, I think, “The Merv Griffin Show.” But his replacement, with true star power, left an indelible impression.

It was the late—and then unknown—Raul Julia.

Her ISO appearance was my first time seeing Liza Minnelli and, yes, she’s a star. No question.

The concert was a kick, from the moment Minnelli entered to the opening “New York, New York” vamp to the “photo” she took of the crowd with an imaginary camera as she waltzed into the wings after her final bow.

Mannelli’s batteries seemed fully charged in front of a live audience, treating the Hilbert Circle Theatre crowd like it was a gang of guests in her living room. Warm and confident, she even stopped the orchestra after a few missed vocal notes (“I can do that better, for crissakes,” she said), gave herself a redo, nailed it, and took the passionate audience even deeper into the palm of her hand. If this was a calculated move, it worked beautifully.

The stopping-her-own-show move was consistent with the just-us-folks nature of her set.

“Oh, my darlings, thank you for coming,” she said, before delivering a deft blend of “Here, I’ll Stay” and “Our Love is Here to Stay.” She brought back her Roxy Hart from Broadway’s “Chicago” to both act and sing “My Own Best Friend,” and offered a version of “Maybe This Time” that took on even richer connotations with Minnelli decades past the tune’s “Cabaret” origins.

Of course, she sang the title song from “Cabaret,” and knew she’d get a thunderous reaction with just the right pause after the “too much pills and liquor” line. And the defiant climax of the song still sends chills, even after the live-fast-die-young of “When I go/ I’m going like Elsie” was changed to the survivalist “I’m not going like Elsie.”

Even after recent illness and knee surgery, she remained a whirligig.

“I gotta sit down,” she said at one point, dragging a director’s chair across the stage. But she spent little time in it.

Longtime Minnelli pianist Billy Stritch was in good voice on an “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” duet. Minnelli showed her seductive side in the Peggy Lee tune “He’s a Tramp.” And a sweet piano-bench delivery of “Every Time We Say Goodbye” in which the lighting can’t take sole credit for Minnelli seeming to drop 40 years.

But the highlight for me was “The World Goes ’Round,” a great Kander and Ebb tune from the movie “New York, New York.” No, she didn’t hit the notes like she did in the film version, but there’s more to an entertainer than that.

Yes, Minnelli modified songs to fit her more limited range. Yes, she allowed her trumpet player and other musicians to sometimes fill in to mask the sound she couldn’t make. Time can take its toll on talent. But it’s not as hard on star quality.

A true star can make you beam for days.

The challenge is readjusting your expectation for mortals who are merely talented.

I’m kind of glad the Liza/ISO concert was the last show I got to see before taking a vacation.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com. Twitter: IBJArts and follow Lou Harry’s A&E blog at www.ibj.com/arts.


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