Liberace reborn, at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret

By - Nov 17th, 2010 04:00 am
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Poster for French release of Liberace’s only leading-man film role. English title: “Sincerely Yours” (1955). Pardon my French, but did they call it “The Man with the Magic Fingers”?!

Liberace is about to join Clarence Darrow, Kate Hepburn, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Laurel and Hardy in the ranks of dead celebrities returned to life on various Milwaukee stages recently.

Brent Hazelton’s Liberace! opens Sunday (Nov. 21) at the Stackner Cabaret, with Jack Forbes Wilson starring as Mr. Showmanship. Hazelton, artistic associate at The Rep, wrote the show to celebrate of the man, his music and his secretive private life.

Liberace! fits Milwaukee. After all, Wladziu “Walter” Valentino Liberace was born in West Allis.

“When I learned of Liberace’s Milwaukee roots, I knew I wanted to find a way to celebrate this extraordinary, one-of-a-kind entertainer,” said Mark Clements, the Rep’s Artistic Director. “We’re thrilled to have Brent Hazelton write this world premiere play for us. Liberace was a brilliant musician and showman, as is Jack Forbes Wilson, who is going to make a dynamite Liberace.”

Clement’s gushing enthusiasm is what Liberace was all about. At 13, Liberace played with the Milwaukee Symphony and, just a few years later, with the Chicago Symphony.  From there, his keyboard talent, buttressed by a folksy audience appeal and a keen business sense, catapulted him into international stardom. Among his heaps of awards and accolades are Emmys, half a dozen gold records and listing in the 1978 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s highest paid musician. His TV and concert persona attracted a middle-aged, middle American audience of which an estimated 80% were women. He epitomized everything they wanted to be – covered in furs, bedecked in jewels and extravagantly coiffed.

Liberace’s Milwaukee connection remained throughout his career. He played the Pabst Theatre over dozen times, as well as Summerfest and the Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. He sold out the Riverside Theatre only months before his death. Of course, Liberace’s taste was rooted in Milwaukee as well – he loved Usinger’s sausage.

Michael Jackson and Elvis, among many others, followed Liberace’s sequined-studded path. Elton John, by his own admission, is a living disciple of the Liberace mantra: dazzle and they will follow. If there’s one thing Liberace mastered, it was showmanship with all its hype, glitz and glamour. Showmanship, after all, is a lot of smoke and mirrors – in Liberace’s case, lots and lots of mirrors, covering pianos, cars, and above all himself. Those mirrors reflected what was outside and hid what lay within.

Hazelton’s script explores both the outside and inside of  Liberace’s evolution from small-town talent to incredibly rich, famous and flamboyantly foppish entertainer.  Rick Graham’s design — complete with Liberace’s trademark chandelier and candelabra — and Alex Tecoma’s costumes will transform the Stackner into a gilded Las Vegas fantasy.

Along with Mr. Showmanship’s on-stage extravagance and musical legacy from Chopin to Chopsticks, Liberace! promises to reveal insights into the man’s personal life. Liberace was gay, of course.  Tabloid headlines and lawsuits notwithstanding, he kept his love life a not so well-kept secret. His family tried to cover up the cause of death, which an autopsy eventually showed to be AIDS.

Jack Forbes Wilson

Jack Forbes Wilson is both star and music director for the show.  Wilson, a well-known local performer, has appeared in many shows at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. He was involved with this production from the beginning.

“It’s a wonderful thing when you’re creating a one-person play to be able to write to fit that person, their skills and abilities as a performer, “ Hazelton said, “Jack has the musical chops for this role – he’s a great piano player and actor. He’s born to be on stage telling stories much in the same way that Liberace was.”

The play was created in cooperation with The Liberace Foundation. (Since 1976, The Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts has awarded more than 2,700 students with scholarships.)

For those who remember Liberace, Liberace! will be a fun-filled evening of nostalgia. For those who don’t, Liberace! should reveal a moment of surreal excess in America’s entertainment history. For all, perhaps, Hazelton’s play will allow that look behind the curtain to discover the real man behind the star.

Liberace! previews at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 19-20), opens at 7 p.m. Sunday and runs through Jan. 16. Tickets are $45 or $35, depending on day and time of the performance ($40/$35 for students and seniors). To order, visit the Milwaukee Repertory Theater box office, call 414- or visit The Rep’s website.

Categories: Theater

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