Ivoryton’s ‘Liberace’ Has Glitz and Depth
By Christopher Arnott
Special To The Courant
The piano gets a major workout in the intense and unexpectedly deep biodrama “Liberace” at Ivoryton
If you want steady work on Connecticut theater stages, in roles that let you shine at center stage for hours on end, you should transform yourself into a piano.
In recent years, that imposing instrument has anchored such varied shows as “Autumn Sonata” at Yale Rep, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at Hartford Stage, “Murder for Two” at the Long Wharf Theatre and “Love and Money” at Westport Country Playhouse.”
In “Liberace!,” which tickles the ivories at the Ivoryton Playhouse through Nov. 15, the piano isn’t a plot device or fancy prop — it’s an essential extension of the show’s star, one of the most popular, well-paid and elaborately costumed performers of the 20th century.
The piano gets a major workout in this intense and unexpectedly deep biodrama about a resplendent star of the 1950s through the ’80s who was, we learn from Brent Hazelton’s insightful script, profoundly misunderstood and worthy of a listening with a fresh set of ears.
In “Liberace!,” you hear everything from Bach’s “Minuet in G” and Liszt’s “Liebestraum” to “Night and Day” and “The Beer Barrel Polka.” He creates variations on “Three Little Fishies” in the styles of Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss. The showstopper is an extraordinary Gershwin medley that weaves some of the composer’s pop hits (“Swanee,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “The Man I Love”) into the main themes of “Rhapsody in Blue.” (Musical arrangements are credited to Jack Forbes Wilson.)
As the living embodiment of Liberace, Daryl Wagner performs these masterworks unaccompanied and unbridled. He throws himself into the playing, his heavily ringed fingers flashing and his coiffed head bobbing and sweating. Wagner, already esteemed as a world-class Liberace impersonator who has performed with the respected Legends in Concert revue in Las Vegas, on Broadway and on tour, began his career as a singer and pianist in the lounge of the real-life Liberace’s Tivoli Gardens nightclub. He apes the Liberace style magnificently. In terms of physical similarity, he’s rather more attractive, which is a plus.
At its rhinestone-encrusted heart, “Liberace!” is a recreation of the exuberant, playful playing style of this singular performer. But between — and often during — these lush, vibrant piano performances, “Liberace!” offers enlightening anecdotes, thoughtful digressions on pop culture and heartfelt reflections and confessions.
The creators of “Liberace!” acknowledge that there are several different Liberaces that need to be impersonated here. There’s the insecure younger man, browbeaten by his father into playing formal, mannered renditions of the classical canon. There’s the cocky entertainer who works his way up from playing piano in strip bars to wowing audiences of thousands with a hit TV show and Vegas superstardom. There’s the closeted gay man who tries to keep his private life private but who finds himself suing a gossip magazine for libel when it declares that he’s homosexual; years later he’s defending himself in a palimony suit brought by “love of my life” Scott Thorson. Ultimately, there’s the over-the-top persona Liberace dubs “Mr. Showmanship,” which the pianist admits he conjured up in order to deflect attention from his personal struggles.
The show, which was developed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and has been produced at a handful of theaters (with other actors/pianists in the bespangled central role) is still being tinkered with. The Ivoryton production, directed by the Playhouse’s artistic director, Jacqueline Hubbard, and lavishly furnished by scenic designer Daniel Nischan, allows for all the customary embellishments of the celebrity-tribute theater genre, with Wagner regularly descending into the auditorium to chat up the audience (and even invite one lucky person onstage for an amusing piano duet). Onstage, he interacts with mannequins, including one dressed to resemble his boyfriend Thorson. The show is set vaguely in the present tense, with Liberace (“Lee” to his friends) announcing from the outset that he is “dead. Dead as a doornail.” This allows him to swear onstage, tackle topics that were controversial in his own time, and chronicle his career to its final moments. (Liberace died of complications from AIDS in 1987.)
Liberace! ends on a downbeat note, with Liberace bemoaning that his death shone a harsh spotlight on his personal life rather than his impressive career as “Mr. Showmanship.” The mood could easily be turned around by a glitzy encore number, but chooses to stay dark.
“Liberace!” is deeper, sharper and bolder than fans of the celeb-trib form have any right to expect. It has all the glitter and feathery fluff that you’d associate with this bubbly, irrepressible performer. But there are shadows formed by that iconic candelabra on Liberace’s piano.
“LIBERACE!” is at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton (Essex) through Nov. 15. The running time is 2-1/2 half hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Performances are Wednesday at 2 & 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $42, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. Information: 860-767-7318, ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Copyright © 2015, Hartford Courant
The Candelabra Burn Brightly for This Star as Liberace Tickles the Ivoryton
By Lauren Yarger
CONNECTICUT ARTS CONNECTION — An award-winning site for news and reviews of Connecticut’s professional theater and arts.
Impressionist Daryl Wagner gives a stunning performance as entertainer Liberace! at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Wagner, who worked for the real-life “Mr. Showmanship” in Las Vegas as a pianist and singer, has played him for more than 20 years across the world in the renowned “Legends In Concert” show, as well as many productions that he arranged and produced himself. With a script by Brent Hazelton, Liberace! is a satisfying medley of impersonation, piano playing and biography — a combination Director Jacqueline Hubbard said was difficult to cast until she saw Wagner.
Between the 1950s and ’70s, Władziu Valentino Liberace (known as Lee to his friends) was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and the toast of Las Vegas. In a plot device where the entertainer returns from heaven for one more day to reflect on his life, we discover a young boy who studies classical piano to appease his unloving, judgmental father. He succeeds, but doesn’t find personal satisfaction in his music until he develops his own style, combining classical with fun – to the delight of his audiences.
Against a setting of three arched curtained areas surrounded by standing and hanging candelabra (set design by Daniel Nischan), Wagner sits at a grand piano center stage to play musical numbers as diverse as a Rachmaninov concerto to “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Three Little Fishies,” and “The Boogie Woogie.”
Liberace’s life story is played in between notes and we discover why the entertainer adopted his outlandish, flamboyant costumes (provided by Wagner), the candelabrum that always graced his piano, and the devastation he feels behind probes into his private word, which included closeted homosexual relationships and death from AIDs-related complications.
Wagner embodies the entertainer and looks and sounds very much like the real Liberace. The script incorporates some fun audience participation opportunities and Wagner seems as much at ease with his fans as Mr. Showmanship did.
While entertaining and engaging, Hazelton’s script, developed in cooperation with the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts, makes the mistake of many biographical stage plays – trying to include every possible moment from the subject’s life. The result is a script that is far too long at two hours and 45 minutes and which seems drag for almost half an hour as additional biographical details get tacked on after Liberace performs a sensational Gershwin medley which should be the ending.
Wagner is not to be missed, though. The actor, who served as resident conductor at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and conducted Bernadette Peters in the national tour of Dames at Sea, gives a polished glimpse into the world of the beloved, besparkled and tormented entertainer we knew simply as Liberace.
Liberace! tickles the Ivoryton through Nov. 15 at the playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.. Tickets $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Daryl Wagner channels ‘Mr. Showmanship’ at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT
By Donald Church
Hartford Cruise Examiner
The Vegas style show bizzy introduction “Ladies and gentlemen – Mr. Showmanship himself – LIBERACE!” can now be claimed by the incomparable actor/musician, Daryl Wagner, who is currently onstage at Connecticut’s Ivoryton Playhouse in Brent Hazleton’s play with music – Liberace! – through Nov. 15.
Daryl Wagner is elegant in his role as ‘Liberace!’ at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT. See and hear this virtuoso performer and have a good time, too…..he’s as funny as Liberace ever was!
Has Liberace actually come back to life? YES, and Daryl Wagner is the genius who has reserrected him at the Ivoryton Playhouse in CT.
As the play opens, Mr. Wagner grabs the audience with his bigger-than-life presence and doesn’t let go until the final curtain. He takes you with him on a two-act ride through the life of the indomitable showman from the musician’s early days of living with his kind mother and controlling father, right through to his illness and death. Daryl charmingly projects all the sturm und drang of Liberace’s life with that iconic wink and smile that made “Lee” a TV star, and later a worldwide household name.
Surrounded by chandeliers and candelabra, Daryl cuts an elegant figure in his black-and-white formal attire, seated at an ebony grand piano. The stage set of glimmering candles and red-velvet draperies, designed by Daniel Nischan, can transform from concert hall serenity to over-the-top Las Vegas glitz with the addition of Marcus Abbotts stunning lighting in a matter of moments.
Daryl’s more than two decades of playing tribute to Liberace in major theaters has paid off for the Ivoryton Playhouse in more ways than one. For the most part, he’s supplied his own costumes-many of them exact replicas of Mr. Liberace’s own wardrobe – complete with the over-the-top flashy jewelry. Additionally, Director Jacqui Hubbard has been given the gift of working with someone who actually was employed by and knew Liberace himself.
With the showman’s mannerisms and movements down pat, directing Mr. Wagner, who appears through the courtesy of the Actor’s Equity Association, might have given Jacqui, who very intelligently cast Daryl in the role, some real directorial fun.
That fun is palpable in Daryl’s warm and intimate direct address to the audience and in a few instances of good-humored individually targeted ‘audience participation.’ Everyone seems to be able to easily get on board for this ride, from the riotous ad-libs and visual comedy that made Mr. Showmanship famous, to the poignant soul-searching that Liberace had to face all through his life.
As for Mr. Wagner’s virtuosity, there are really no superlatives to match his talent. With the heavy rings on his fingers that were a Liberace trademark, Daryl, who is as great a piano virtuoso as was Liberace, playing everything from Chopin to Boogie Woogie, flies through the Liberace tune book with a musicality that put us in a trance. He has the talent to hypnotize the audience into believing that the late showman has actually returned, for just under 3 hours, to entertain and delight once again. Daryl Wagner channels Liberace, gives a stunning concert, delivers lots of belly laughs and does it all with a wink and a smile.
This is a not-to-be-missed topper to the Ivoryton Playhouse’s 2015 all-hit season.
If you don’t love this show, you don’t love show business!
LIBERACE! runs at the Ivoryton Playhouse October 28th November 15th, 2015. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm.
Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting their website at ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street, Ivoryton.
GARNER THE GLITZ AND GLAMOUR OF “LIBERACE!”
By Bonnie Goldberg
Light the candelabras and chandeliers, don the classy costumes and cloaks festooned with thousands of sequins, prepare the piano for polished playing and welcome Liberace to the stage. Until Sunday, November 15, Daryl Wagner is becoming the glittering and flamboyant entertainer who once upon a time was the highest paid star in the show business circuit, earning $350,000 a week for his spectacular Las Vegas shows. The Ivoryton Playhouse is rolling out the red carpet to welcome Mr. Showmanship, in “Liberace!,” in all his glittering glory.
Daryl Wagner is no stranger to the role, as he has inhabited Liberace’s skin for two decades in “Legends in Concert” on the Las Vagas stage and now is happy to share the star with audiences at this grand old summer theater that is over one hundred years old.
Wagner brings the consummate entertainer to captivating life as he uses his talents and bejeweled hands to tickle the ivories, playing classic and pop tunes, while smoozing about his colorful life. With tales of his childhood and immigrant background, his career, his brother George on the violin, he tiptoes along his slow start in small clubs until he took off like a meteor shower to stardom and a string of sold-out performances at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall.
With trademark glamorous outfits costing $10,000 or more each that distinguished him from the crowd, Liberace stood in his own spotlight of fame. With personality plus, he held sway in a special milieu that he created alone. Pounding out tunes like “The Boogie Woogie,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Night and Day” and “Who Could Ask for Anything More,” clothed in feathers and fur, sparkles and sequins, Liberace often said “Too much of a Good Thing is Wonderful.”
In this intimate revelation of the man and his music, penned by Brent Hazleton, the showman is at once clad in all his glamour and stripped of all his charisma. The controversy that always swirled around his sexual orientation is dealt with in an upfront and personal way, as the man behind the spangles is exposed, flaws and fascinations and all. Jacqueline Hubbard directs this honest, heartwarming and heartbreaking look at one of America’s most excess driven entertainers.
For tickets ($42, seniors $37, students $20 and children $15), call Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton at 860-767-7318 or online at wwwivorytonplayhouse.org. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Come meet Wladziu Valentino Liberace, known to his friends as Lee or Walter, as Daryl Wagner brings him brilliantly to larger-than-life superstar prominence on the Ivoryton Playhouse stage.