Since the determined Ms. Minelli is as yet happily living, the title of “The Death of Liza Minelli” is an early first indication of what is to come: a surprising, intriguing and ultimately profoundly moving theatrical experience.
Jimmy Johnson ’03, the show’s creator, director and its major character, takes the audience on an unexpected and yet poignant journey of self-discovery, one laced with side-splitting jokes and brilliantly performed songs borrowed from — of course — the repertoire of the great Liza herself. Through a series of vignettes involving family, friends, and first loves, Johnson captures the spirit of life in “Death.”
Johnson, who worked on the show as his Theater Studies senior project, excels right from the start, when he turns the obligatory pre-show “Please turn off all cell phones” announcement into a witty comment on humanity’s isolation.
From there, the show only picks up speed. We are introduced to the main character, Brian (Johnson), as he prepares to come out of the closet to his very traditional parents. Johnson handles the potentially sentimental moment with wry humor; when contemplating his Mama’s shock at his admission, Brian quips, “People are so damn stupid! I mean, for God’s sake, I listen to Liza Minelli all day long!”
Christine Sholes ’04, who plays Rita, Brian’s stereotypically Southern and very religious Mama, manages to transcend the stereotype and reveals a loving mother who is suffering for her son. As Brian confesses his “secret,” Sholes stands by stunned. Her pained and immediate response — “But Brian, I wanted you to go to heaven!” — though melodramatically amusing, nonetheless strikes a tender chord.
Sholes and Janson Woodlee ’03, who plays Brian’s father Larry, play up the funny bits of Christopher Durang-like satire to hilarious perfection. Larry, for instance, barely seems to notice Brian’s labored confession: he calmly continues to flip through his newspaper as Rita tearfully continues sorting laundry.
The scenes then shift from Brian’s birth family to the family he has created for himself: his best friends and roommates Lana (Julie Stein ’03) and Billie (James Kirchick ’06).
Stein, as the funny and nurturing lesbian of the group, provides a thoughtful portrait of the mother figures we choose as friends when we can’t identify with nature’s maternal choice.
She is a bright and sparkling contrast to Kirchick’s Billie, the pessimistic Eeyore of this makeshift family. Billie, down in the dumps because of a lackluster love life, is an amusing contrast to the bubbly and effusive Brian. The three play off of each other well, forming a delightfully modern kind of Odd Couple — or perhaps it is more accurate to say Queer Trio.
Daniel O’Neill ’03, as Brian’s lover Robert, provides much of the basis for conflict in the show. Brian is thrilled to finally be involved in a relationship with someone. He is so thrilled in fact that he risks losing part of himself — the Liza Minelli-loving part — in order to accommodate Robert’s closeted gay lifestyle.
O’Neill, however, plays Robert as much more than the typical “closet case.” Although Robert is indeed a star basketball player who has yet to admit his homosexuality to his teammates or anyone other than Brian, the moments between O’Neill and Johnson are truly heartwarming. The tenderness and sensitivity of their embraces, coupled with the sharp dialogue of the script, make their scenes together some of the best in the show.
If witty dialogue and thoughtful characters aren’t enough, Johnson keeps things spicy by belting out such Liza hits as “Cabaret,” “Maybe This Time,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” to segue from one scene to the next. His voice, like his acting, is refreshingly deep, utterly exuberant and endearingly honest.
Though the show runs a little long and starts to lose its freshness, it finishes well, when Johnson belts out the final number in full Minelli attire.
And so “Death” ends with a “live” Liza Minelli — and it is very much Jimmy Johnson’s Liza.