Liberace and What’s-his-name: Two Musicals About Real-Life Artists, Visual and Performing, Performed Artfully at NYMF

Review by ROB LESTER**** When art imitates life in the arts, there can be artistic differences. At the festival closing Sunday, August 6, two ambitious NYMF shows celebrate real-life artistic American men: one still famous (Liberace), one whose fame was fleeting (painter John Banvard). Subtitled The Liberace Musical, the efficiently entertaining Ben, Virginia and Me has many moments of heart, is often a hoot, and I think we have a hit! Georama: An American Panorama Told on Three Miles of Canvas is more earnest, with more of a serious-minded exploration of honorable art for art’s sake versus selfish, mercenary interests by others. While it’s admirable, its rather heavy-handed approach (at times) may make for a more uphill battle in its road to — pardon the expression — commercial success.  

Let’s look at the bio-musical about legendary nusic man Liberace first. Ben, Virginia and Me has a smartly compact book by Roger O. Hirson, who most notably did the same honors long ago for Pippin.  Much credit is due for avoiding the many pitfalls that often vex writers attempting to do show-biz bios.  While some tweaking may be in order now that this long-in-the-development property has been put on its feet in front of its first paying audience, it faces and embraces in the cases of some of its potentially deadly stereotype/exaggeration.  Oh, you’ve seen them in such shows and in even more movies with rags-to-riches sagas, some romanticized due to the agendas —mostly in earlier days—of censors or surviving relatives and their lawyers who wanted more whitewashing than Tom Sawyer’s fence ever had. We’ve all seen such (melo)dramatizations with stock characters: the oh-so-talented and determined diamond-in-the-rough starry-eyed star-to-be; the self-sacrificing Mama; the egotistical established ham performer; the cigar-chomping, not-so-artistic producer; the taskmaster director; the seedy owner of the seedy club; the Mob figure with power and influence for a price (paging Faust); the “I’ll make you a big star, kid” agent/manager/Svengali.  Then there’s the personal life or potential love interest put on hold to doggedly pursue fame and fortune and more fame—but at what price?  Check, check, check.  But it’s all done with such affection and panache that one wants to cry “Bring it on!” This is what we crave when it’s done well — a deliciously old-school musical comedy.  And it’s a musical that makes us care about its characters, even a  legendary gangster and his hard-nosed gun-moll gal.  

This musical is…..Wait a minute!  Did someone say gangster and his gal?  Yes, that was your admiring reviewer.  The Ben and Virginia of the title are Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and his eyes-wide-open lady, Virginia Hill. This show has it that the couple had close personal and professional ties with Liberace and there’s a lot of stage time for them, singly, with each other, and all three. The plot covers much ground, taking us from a very early club date for Liberace, sharing the stage with his brother, to his being coached out of retirement.  The show could benefit from an extra scene with just Liberace and Virginia, to cement their bond outside of the Ben factor; it would illuminate the scenes after Ben is gone.  Siegel took credit for putting Liberace on the Vegas map; we imagine that much of the rest is, well, imagined.  And who can resist a singing gangster?  Especially when the songs are this good.  And, boy oh boy, are they good!  Good enough to make the old complaint of fans of classic show tunes —“They don’t write ’em like that any more”— face a welcome retirement with the evidence presented at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row.

Are a mobster and his main squeeze not the pals and support system you expected?  Well, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but they do bring some Vegas humor and performance style back to the NYC stage.  Siegel takes more time and money than originally planned to build his hotel/casino The Flamingo.  In the show’s waiting-to-happen-but-who-saw-it-coming sight gags, they look at the giant sign with the name of the building in blinding lights: the last letter is burned out.  And when the decidedly queeny Liberace is asked what the sign spells, he replies: “Flaming.”  His flamboyant behavior and dress (capes, feathers, feathered capes, rings, furs, sequins, gold and silver, sparkle, sparkle, sparkle) are paraded, his every fey way on display, and his homosexuality not sidestepped, although we aren’t given details except for a momentary you-take-my-breath-away introduction to Rock Hudson. The musical doesn’t get into what happens behind closed doors, but flings the doors wide open to the trial where a gossip columnist’s accusations forces Liberace to take the witness stand and be asked about his sexuality.

The music is fun and frothy and fabulous.  The score is a loveable, literate sensation and richly rewarding on all counts. I want a cast album forthwith. The songs resides on-so-squarely and proudly in the Jerry Herman school of musical razzamatazz — upbeat and sweet, smart, sharp, with polished, princely rhymes from witty wonder woman Barbara Carole Sickmen, also the bookwriter/story concept person and main composer.  The late Marvin Hamlisch had been set to be the composer, but Mrs. Sickmen stepped up to her own plate, a plate which already had plenty on it, and started spinning plates in the musical air without dropping one, and serves up uber-entertaining songs (have I mixed metaphors?).  She did have some help, however:  Johnny Rodgers, songwriter and singer shared by the pop and cabaret worlds (and much missed here in NYC since he zipped back to Chicago and his globe-trotting) collaborated on four of the strongest melodies, including the ode to excess which closes the first act and is reprised at the end, “Too Much Is Never Enough” and a socko specialty for Sophie Tucker, “The Yellow Canary Diamond.” (Another Tucker treat is interpolated from that brash entertainer’s actual repertoire, addressed to the infamous “Mr. Siegel.”)  The splendid score is in splendid hands, two of which are conducting the music (those same two hands, belonging to music director Seth Weinstein, are also playing the keyboards in the the five-man band) blessed by orchestrator Jordan Ross Weinhold and music supervisor Jesse Warkentin.     

Without exception, the NYMF cast is super-duper.  Samuel Floyd is up to the tough task of making Liberace real, despite the love of the glitz and bling and Floyd flits flamboyantly in furs and finery without discarding what he shows from the start as a music-loving, sweet soul.  He goes from wide-eyed, grateful-to-play-the-piano-for-you boy to gleeful superstar to slightly embittered older legend quite believably.  The company convincingly supports the live-and-let-live respect quotient, reinforcing the property’s determination to not be in the camp of presenting the star as just camp figure, but a flesh-and-blood person with feelings and a right to privacy in the treacherous gay-unfriendly “another time” he lived in.  Kudos, for fine performances bringing dimension and drama to their roles, to Eric Briarley and Haley Hannah as Ben (don’t call him Bugsy unless you want your face bashed in—it’s a rough scene to watch) and Virginia. Janet Aldrich doubles as a firecracker of a Sophie Tucker and the long-suffering Mama Liberace.  Joel Blum is effectively sleazy and sneering as the gossip scribe setting out to “out” Liberace and ruin him, also snidely setting up some scenes with raised eyebrow and no dearth of snide opinions.  With buoyant brio, Buzz Roddy leads one of the best song-and-dance numbers by Sickmen, a juicy ode to a performer’s need for “Representation.”  The icing on the cake for this standout is the choreography by director Paul Stancato (co-choreographer is Sidney Erik Wright) –their work is spiffy and spot on all around, too.  There’s just the right amount of dance with Vegas show girls and then Liberace’s bucket list of dancing with the Rockettes.  

A marvelous ensemble of seven is kept busy, always dressed to the nines with seemingly generous budget for this and the star’s famously over-the-top looks.  Kurt Alger is costume designer with flair and fun, gaudy only when the moment calls for it.  There’s a feast for the eyes here, rather shocking (in a good way, of course), considering how sketchy some NYMF shows tend to be. Kevan Loney’s projections are impressive, too.  And, pardon the expression, props to props designer Colleen Murray for attention to detail, too.  Have you been waiting for an old-fashioned musical with old-fashioned values–meaning it values craft and entertainment that also has something to say and does so with dignity?  Well, you’ve found it.  But let’s not applaud this just as a show that honors Liberace, whose shiny jewelry, sparkly costumes, and silver candelabra could, arguably, outshine his musical skills. It has something to say about such crucial topics as prejudice, power, privacy, and loyalty.  But it does it all while making us grin and tap our feet and jump for joy while we think.

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Georama takes its title from the claim to (not eternal) fame for painter (and writer) John Banvard, who, back in the day (in the 1800s, thank you) came up with the world’s most gigantic painting.  It moved, thanks to its being unspooled by a giant, sturdy device so people could follow it in its full-length glory. In the theatre audience, we we sit/ set in place, but Banvard’s viewers could pass by the unspooled marvel as they slowly passed it by, admiringly, in boats along the Mississippi.  And it actually was a painting of sights along that that great American river.  Scott Neale provides this unique scenic beauty design for us —painted as a labor of love by brush-wielders of the St. Louis Repertory Company where the musical had an earlier incarnation.  We can take pleasure in their achievement in recreating Banvard’s once-celebrated yet sadly non-surviving painting.  The musical’s opening number acknowledges that “Nobody Knows” the story of this man who was, in his day, celebrated, put down, rich, poor, wise, and troubled. To be a visual artist typically means lots of solitude and can attract those who are fine with that. And being obsessed with your passion can come along with that tendency.  Does that make a character sympathetic to an audience?  Think of the title artists of both generations in Sunday in the Park with George; the path to loving them was no “walk in the park” for those who dealt with their personalities and frustrations.  Contrary to what’s expressed by the more endearing performing artist Fanny Brice in the most famous ballad of the  bio-musical, Funny Girl (“People who need people are the luckiest people in the world…”), solitude-craving Banvard happily rants, “Who Needs People.”  What brings us to his side then?  He has some integrity, for one thing, and dedication, and we are sympathetically against those who seek to profit from his talents by copying his invention, seeking a healthy percentage by promoting or managing his output, trying to talk him into churning out more paintings.  We can root for John, despite his being portrayed in some scenes as irritable, harsh, insensitive, or just not a whole lot of fun.  Playing the role, P.J. Griffith has his work cut out for him. Like his character, he seems to have quite the work ethic himself.  So, it works, at least to a degree, as directed by West Hyler, who co-wrote the book with the primary songwriter Matt Schatz (additional music and lyrics were contributed by music arranger Jack Herrick of the group Red Clay Ramblers).

A major asset to this production (or any, I’d venture to say) is the talented and plucky Jillian Louis as the love interest, Elizabeth, who offers to enliven John’s speeches by accompanying him on piano —and then in his travels–and then…in other ways. The actress-singer’s memorable grin and accompanying bonhomie serve her well. Portraying Elizabeth as plucky, optimistic, resourceful, and strong-willed, she’s splendid and may be the path to caring about John for some audiences.  (Behind every great forgotten man is a great forgotten woman, to adapt an old saying.)  Randy Blair devilishly and energetically plays the conniving Taylor who sees the potential in John as someone who can make money (and much of it for Taylor himself). Nick Sullivan plays a variety of characters, ranging from Elizabeth’s father to, in a gender-switching assignment, a certain monarch of the era.  (Ignore the actor’s beard?)  Jacob Yates and Ana Marcu play smaller roles and lots of music, as band members.  

I found myself not consistently engaged, wanting to get beyond some basics of the plot, and my experience watching was somewhat like that unspooling of the slowly-passing-before-my- very-eyes panorama via georama:  I wanted things to move at a brisker clip or have more variety—-even though what was there was respectable and well crafted and showed skill and dedication.  My own post-show research shows some other aspects of Banvard’s later life that might be worth exploring in some detail.  It seems there was more than just the georama that could intrigue. Alas, there’s also opinion on the record that his efforts as a poet were not deemed to show the same kind of talent as his paintings and much in his post-phenomenon life was anti-climactic and he died broke.  But, handled correctly, that could be interesting. Too.  The show has some very attractive songs with a suitable Americana feel and heartwarming musical theatre tapestry.                     

See www.NYMF.org for tickets to the ending weekend, Sunday night’s awards presentations, and other news.