Review: Liza at the Hilbert

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I honestly don't know how much of Liza Minnelli's act is an act.

At Wednesday's concert, the performing dynamo entered to a "New York, New York" vamp and launched into "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with a fearlessness that only comes with years on the stage. She's a one-of-a-kind entertainer whose batteries seem to be 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 B'way'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 that 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.

Her set followed a short first act, featuring the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in movie music mode. It seemed to take a little while for the ISO to get in the spirit of things, but that was found once the fingers started snapping to the opening of a big, brassy "Hey, Big Spender." The ISO's role in the second half was largely supportive, with Minnelli's own combo taking on much of the musical chores.

Longtime Minnelli pianist Billy Stritch was in good voice on an "I Cant' 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 in the film version (See that stunning performance here), but there's more to an entertainer than that. Yes, she modified songs to fit her more limited range and, yes, she allowed her trumpet player and other musicians to sometimes fill in to mask the sound she couldn't make. But as a fan of Great American Songbook and Broadway music, I've listened to lots of performers who have the technique and the vocal chops but not the special something that makes a singer a star.

We shall not see the likes of Liza again anytime soon. Here's hoping she'll return.

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