Monday, 31 December 2012

Liza! Liza! Liza!

I have had a love affair with Liza Minnelli since I was a kid. I remember shopping at Eaton's department store one day with my uncle and cousins in the early 80s and he said us kids could have any cassette tape we wanted from the sale bin, his treat. My choice? - The soundtrack to Cabaret, featuring Liza Minnelli. My uncle probably guessed at that point that I was gay!

I had my first gay relationship when I was sixteen and saw Liza in concert for the first time up at Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada's Wonderland that summer. She had just completed a stint in rehab and was in fine form, adding new songs by Cyndi Lauper and Madonna to her old-school repertoire. Looking around at the audience members, I realized at that point that I wasn't the only gay in the village that liked Liza Minnelli.

I even cut class once to see a matinee of Rent A Cop at Toronto's Uptown Theatre. The movie, which co-starred Burt Reynolds and Dionne Warwick, was a critical and box office flop but I didn't care. There was something about Liza that intrigued me.

In 1993, a dream of mine came true. I got to meet Minnelli when I was chosen to be an extra in the video for Liza's AIDS charity recording of the song, The Day After That. It was being filmed in Toronto and they wanted people of all ages and types to be background performers. I was so excited to be involved! It was fascinating to watch her on set, with musical director Billy Stritch and make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin vying for her attention. I met Liza after filming had finished for the day as she graciously posed for a picture with me and gave me an autographed photo of herself. I was in heaven!

Now, I will admit that the Liza of today is not the Liza that I saw in concert in the 80s. But give the woman a break. She is 66 years old and has had knee replacement surgery, two hip replacements and an operation on her damaged vocal chords. Hell, she even survived viral encephalitis, not to mention a marriage to David Gest. During her concert at Roy Thomson Hall last year, the stardust was still there even if some of the notes weren't.

Luckily for me, Toronto performer Jennifer Walls is bringing back the Liza of yesteryear in her show, Liza Live!, at the Next Stage Festival. Intrigued by our mutual interest in Minnelli, I contacted Jennifer to ask her a few questions.

Gay Theatre Toronto
So, how did your interest in Liza Minnelli begin? 

Jennifer Walls
When I was studying Music Theatre at Sheridan College, a classmate of mine would do an impression of this actress, Liza Minnelli. I wasn't actually familiar with her at the time. I had just moved away from my small hometown, Renfrew, in the Ottawa Valley. I didn't know much about musicals beyond Andrew Lloyd Webber...yes, I admit it! People have told me I've always been a mimic and I have always been drawn to performers with unique voices/personalities so Liza fascinated me. Fast forward a few years and I've graduated, expanding on my knowledge of musical theatre, touring as a Kelly Clarkson/Christina Aguilera impersonator, having just spent time as a finalist on CBC's How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, where I actually got to perform on the same stage that Liza sang on with her mother Judy Garland at the London Palladium in London, England and was now playing Dorothy in a local production of The Wizard Of Oz. (Ironic?) All the while I'd had this Liza impersonation in my back pocket as a fun off-stage past time. After hearing this during rehearsals, my director told me if I ever forgot my lines I had his permission to break into Liza. This made me stop for a minute and consider that this might actually be good enough to show people. I started researching Liza, her life, her career and her music. I was in awe. I went full speed ahead with the cabaret, Liza Live!, which debuted on Church Street at Statler's upstairs space, where I currently host their Monday night Music Theatre Open Mic, SINGular Sensation with my Liza band. - People came! They even had a good time! This, for me, was very exciting because it was my first self produced show. I've now produced 6 incarnations of Liza Live!, the latest of which opens January 2nd at the Toronto Fringe's Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Have you ever seen Liza perform live? 

It kills me to say this..I have not yet seen Liza perform live. Not yet! Every time she has been in the city since I began this crazy journey, I have always been on tour. It's agonizing! I will see her in person. It's a personal goal of mine. I have however seen many, many performances through the magic of DVD and computer technology. I had to watch a lot of her performing live and speaking in interviews to study her voice and her mannerisms. I also watch her any time I need a bit of inspiration or motivation. I think when I do see her live, it will probably be a religious experience!

Can you tell us a little about your show? 

Liza Live! began as more of a concert, a collection of crowd pleasing songs and Liza antics. She's known for her over the top personality so that's what we did. Over the years the show has followed that basic template. This time, however, for the Next Stage Festival, I wanted to do something a bit different, combining the original concert idea but with a more cohesive through line with a deeper core. The idea became, "What if Liza Minnelli had her own talk show?" - like Ellen or Oprah - What would it be like? The show takes place at the Next Stage Festival's Antechamber at the Factory Theatre. It's a smaller space with a bar, it's very intimate and cozy. This way Liza can really connect with her audience - the show is very interactive. But not in a scary way. My director, Byron Laviolette, also directs the Dora Award winning clown troupe Morro And Jasp which is a very interactive show so rest assured, you'll have a good time. Liza admittedly never talks about herself on stage; she always performs as a character. But what draws me to her most isn't her career but her fighting spirit out of the spotlight. So I wanted my character to be Liza the person as well as Liza the persona and during the course of the show we see the journey of a woman who is fighting her past as she attempts to remain relevant in the future.

Minnelli's career spans about fifty years. Why do you think she still fascinates people to this day?

I think the fact that she's still going after all of these years fascinates a lot of people. She has survived so much throughout her life - substance abuse, failed marriages, miscarriages, illnesses and numerous surgeries - but remains one of the kindest, most talented and passionate performers of our time. We're all fascinated by the dysfunctional lives of celebrities, whether we admit it or not. And Liza has had quite the roller coaster of a life, which I think intrigues people. She is also the daughter of Judy Garland and I believe a lot of Garland fans have had their eye on Liza since she was born and continued to follow her after Judy's death. Liza has also had a career/life quite similar to her mother's, which is also quite fascinating. Despite the dysfunctional spin that has been put on her, it doesn't take long after you see her on stage to realize what an amazing talent she is. It is so obvious that performing is what she was born to do and she hasn't let anything stop her. I find that incredibly inspiring. I actually have a signed photo of Liza on my desk at home that my dramaturg, Ryan G. Hinds, gave me as a gift during a previous run of the show. (He has worked with Liza herself on several occasions.) Anytime I'm feeling less than motivated, I look at it and think about how much she has overcome and it helps me find strength.

Liza Live! runs January 2nd to 13th at the Factory Theatre Antechamber as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Tickets at or by phone at 416-966-1062.

Editor's Note: Liza Live! runs at the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival. Check out details online - Liza Live! at Toronto Fringe 2013.

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