Theatergoers who attend the musicals
at the Sutter Street Theatre are familiar with the musical talent of
John Wilder. His keyboard virtuosity in the recent Young Frankenstein
and Holiday in the Hills filled the theater with the illusion of
a whole orchestra.
What could be more perfect, then,
than having Wilder take center stage as the most flamboyant pianist of
the last half-century, none other than Liberace himself? In Sutter
Street Theatre’s Liberace Presents, Wilder brings to the role a
believable reproduction of Liberace’s exuberant piano style, his fingers
flying up and down the keyboard.
And of course there are the
costumes. At several points in his performance, Liberace leaves the
stage to “get into something more spectacular.” When one of his outfits
draws the audience’s applause, Wilder uses one of Liberace’s own lines:
“I’m glad you like it—you paid for it.” Created by Sutter’s resident
costumer Eileen Beaver, who also appears in the show as Carol Burnett
sidekick Vickie Lawrence, the costumes almost steal the show (as the
real Liberace’s were sometimes said to do).
But the reason to attend this
totally entertaining trip down memory lane is to enjoy John Wilder’s
music. Before he transforms himself into Liberace, he treats the
audience to a brief set on his other instrument, the banjo. Virtually a
self-taught musician (his father gave banjo lessons, but young John
taught himself to play on his father’s instrument when his father wasn’t
home) he plays with the same brio he demonstrates as Liberace on piano.
He told me he took twenty-some piano lessons as a child, but hated them
and soon quit—not playing, obviously, but taking lessons.
The program does not list the
numbers “Liberace” performs, and they may vary from show to show. The
two that I enjoyed the most were the Liberace version of Chop Sticks,
and Liberace’s favorite song, The Impossible Dream. And he closes
the show, after an audience-participation game of other performers’
theme songs, with his own theme song, I’ll Be
Wilder’s Liberace is not the whole
show, of course. Making their appearance, usually during his costume
changes, are his guest stars. Connie Mockenhaupt is a beautiful Carol
Burnett who jokes and sings. In Burnett’s charwoman costume, she gets
her head stuck in the grand piano—twice—dusting the strings while
Liberace is playing, and she joins him in performing Chop Sticks.
She and Eileen Beaver duet effectively as Carol and Vickie. Dian Hoel
sings charmingly and dances spectacularly as Ann Miller, and Sharon
Welling as Dinah Shore nearly takes the roof off the theater.
And I mustn’t fail to mention Mike
Jimena’s several appearances as Rodney Dangerfield. He gets a couple of
notes from Liberace, expecting to be asked to perform his whole set, but
finding instead he has been instructed to take out the garbage. As
always, he “gets no respect.” After missing the curtain call, Rodney
appears on the darkened stage with the garbage bag and then exits by the
wrong door. I suspect Mike had an earlier career as a stand-up comic
himself, his timing and delivery are so good.
If you are too young to remember the
real Liberace, you will not enjoy the show any less. The music of John
Wilder and the performances of his guests make for an evening of total
entertainment for young and old.