Ryback is Terrific as ‘Liberace’

Bur MCT’s funny, dazzling, one-man show turns too dark and maudlin in second act.

By - Nov 22nd, 2023 09:17 am
Brett Ryback in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of "Liberace." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Brett Ryback in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of “Liberace.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

A powerful case is being made at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. It views Liberace (1919-1987) as the Milwaukee-raised patriarch of modern glitz, the flamboyant pioneer of the sexual freedom and acceptance that now dominate our culture. And then, at the end of his cultural limelight, scandal and the emergence of AIDS made him fade away as a tabloid joke.

That’s certainly the outline of a revived Liberace play (13 years ago occupying the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret with Jack Forbes Wilson as Liberace and also written and directed by Brent Hazelton, who now serves as artistic director at MCT).

Running through December 10, Liberace has been freshened at the Studio Theatre, complete with grand piano, ruby red curtain, candelabras, glittery costumes and larger thematic purpose.

The show’s center is a masterful performance by Brett Ryback. Despite his Milwaukee roots the well-traveled Ryback knew little about Władziu Valentino Liberace, but a lot about how Wilson provided music built around Liberace set pieces. If Wilson set the mold, trained pianist and actor Ryback is now in charge of molding the clay, bringing his own individuality and charm.

In the first act of a two-hour show he is the best thing on the current Milwaukee stage.

With his grin, jokes bawdier than Liberace would have allowed, shrewd delivery, audience rapport, intense piano virtuosity, with a dynamic arm flourish to end an arpeggio, he leads us on a journey through Liberace’s style. Like Liberace did in performance, Ryback’s piano runs are excessive, played with knowing showboating. The dazzling rolled chords, then the unnecessary final extension, the piano fingering reflected in the polished mirror over the keyboard — these are other Liberace trademarks.

So are the winks and jokes, so is the selective audience involvement in his boogie-woogies, so is the “Three Little Fishes” novelty song in various classical styles. So are his Paderewski minuet, his inviting an unschooled piano partner from the audience for Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and a meaningful double dose of Franz Liszt’s “Lieberstraum.”

The chronological scheme is that a phantom Liberace is reliving all this from the grave, relishing the wealth he received, the setbacks he survived, imagining there was a destiny at work to keep him going. And then Ryback brings his piano ability to life.

Hazelton may be accused of getting laughs by providing Milwaukee audiences landmark local references. But the writing is shrewder than that. The staging is brisk, interacting Ryback with a series of mannequins.

Writer Hazelton has created an interesting vision that Liberace was fighting snobbery in the classical concert world to let in contemporary standards. He freed the future for others using his own alternate personality, which he called Mr. Showmanship.

The first act actually had me imagining how a little trimming and emphasis on the bigger message would create a Liberace show with legs that could travel anywhere. Ryback’s performance is that good.

The problem is the second act, where Hazelton makes the phantom Liberace too bitter about the dominating society of traditionalists and media seeking to bury him. The actor in Ryback compensates as the mood grows darker. He even makes his piano mannerisms more serious as he loses his lover and his fan base.

But while making an important social point, the second act also mars the uplifting tone about Liberace’s value to society. Director Hazelton and his lone actor try to compensate. But the conclusion is still too unearned and even maudlin. The show went out of its way to suggest Liberace was no flamboyant joke. It shouldn’t end up making him one.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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