Liza’s Back! (is broken) sees celebrated Australian performer Trevor Ashley appearing in drag as the Broadway legend Liza Minnelli, straight out of rehab and ready to perform with her seven-piece band, despite her recently-broken back. In sequin pants suit, Ashley looks the part and moves to it too, with on-point mannerisms, albeit over-emphasised, as witty stories are shared about roles she (apparently) turned down, interspersed with random giggles. Whether sitting diva-like with martini in-hand or shimmying in the spotlight, he is every bit Liza, exaggerated… which works, given Minnelli’s larger than life persona.
Although its humour is sometimes bawdy bordering on inappropriate, the show features references requiring audiences members to be of a certain vintage (think Lorna Luft, Peter Allen et al). Musical acquaintance is also required for optimum appreciation, as Minnelli exposes the flaws of Cats, A Chorus Line, Les Miserables and The Sound of Music, amongst others. Although things start slowly with a talky Act One opening, an audience singalong to ‘Do-Re-Mi soon sets the show’s ultimate pace. And although it is the snappy, upbeat numbers to which the crowd responds most enthusiastically, these are punctuated by poignancy too through a gorgeously wistful ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music and Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard long to return to the spotlight of fame (not that Liza can identify with the faded starlet’s lament).
When Act One closes with a The Wizard of Oz/Wicked tribute to mama Judy Garland, it is easy to think that things could not get any better. But they do. Act Two sees more razzle dazzle, including a noteworthy take of ‘Memory’ featuring an inspired swinging big-band arrangement. Still, Minnelli is a stage and screen star in her own right and, as is appropriate, the setlist features classics of her own making too – ‘New York, New York’, ‘Maybe This Time’ and ‘Cabaret’, all of which allow Ashley to soar to new, stronger heights than earlier intimate numbers.
Beyond just its energetic Bob Fosse-esque song and dance, this is old school cabaret at is most entertaining, enhanced by its on-point lighting and musical cues. And it is wonderful to see the band showcased through numbers like a jazzy version of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Miserables (in which Ashley played the buffoonish Monsieur Thenardier ?in the Australian revival).
Liza’s Back! (is broken) is a tongue-in-cheek tribute that will admittedly not be to everyone’s tastes. Ashley is an amazing performer, always fierce as the much-loved veteran entertainer, whether telling of mama, marriage and musicals or boldly belting out alternative take on a Broadway classic. And this show stands as a deliciously naughty testament to his talent as much as his muse’s idiosyncratic musical legacy.
Venue: Cremorne, QPAC, Brisbane
Dates: 17 – 22 January 2017
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television