I was but a small child when I first heard of Liberace. My mother was a fan, but my father was scornful of him. I grew up understanding that he was a pianist of some musical talent and considerable ability as a popular entertainer, but also that he was somewhat vulgar in that peculiar way that makes some people very rich. Ambivalent admiration.
Liberace was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the son of an immigrant musician, on 16 May 1919. Known as “Walter” to his family, “Lee” to his friends, “Mr Showmanship” to the media and, mononymously to the world simply as “Liberace” (pronounced “Liber-Ah-chee”).
The story of Liberace is an entrancing one because his flamboyant lifestyle both on and offstage fascinates people. He was the highest-paid entertainer in the world for more than twenty years, working both in Las Vegas and touring internationally. Whether he would ever have made a successful career as a concert pianist will never be known. He chose “entertainment” over being a concert pianist and it made him much, much richer and more famous than any concert pianist.
Playing aside, it was his lifestyle which made him interesting. In an era where being gay was considered immoral, if not illegal, there was much speculation about his sexual orientation. Thoughout his career, Liberace publicly denied being gay, successfully suing several publications who made such allegations, although towards the end of his life Scott Thorson sued him for palimony and then wrote the book Behind the Candelabra (made into a fabulous movie for TV in 2013). He settled this out of court.
Liberace died, according to the coroner’s report, of an HIV related illness (CMV pneumonia) on 4 February 1987.
Ok, so away from the biography and into the play. We find ourselves in the audience at the various places over the years where Liberace is entertaining us. It starts when he is only thirteen, and moves through his life as he gets bolder and more brash. With each flick of his coat tails, explained for those who might have missed it, I fell more and more in love with Liberace.
I am, as regular readers will have gathered, usually not given to wild flights of fancy. I understand the magic of theatre and while I love it I am not prone to believing it is real. The fact that it is not real is part of the magic. So when I say that Jonathan Roxmouth is an accomplished pianist (sufficiently accomplished to creditably get through quite a bit of a classical pianist’s standard repertoire) and a superb entertainer and he steps into Liberace’s black fur gown and garish rings with some panache, tickling the ivories most satisfactorily, becoming, for me, Liberace, I am not indulging in a regular little delusion. It is a tribute to Roxmouth’s skill and I simply gave in to it and let it happen. He winked at me, seducing me into confusing him, albeit very temporarily, with his character. I love that!
Call me Lee is great theatre and while Roxmouth is the star he is most ably assisted by Samual Hyde playing Liberace’s agent/manager and friend, Seymour Heller as well as Scott Thorson, the boyfriend of the Behind the Candelabra book/movie fame and more bit characters. Weslee Lauder plays, inter alia, Liberace’s Polish mother, Frances, and his brother, George, as well as Carlucci, Liberace’s manservant and confidante. It was written by Jonathan Roxmouth and Ian von Memerty and directed by Ian von Memerty.
Extra Note: The programme tells how, in 1968, Liberace toured South Africa. Joan Brickhill was in the opening night audience. They met and became lifelong friends. Joan Brickhill’s mink stole is used by Liberace’s mother in the show. Ian von Memerty knows that Joan Brickhill would have approved of her stole sharing the stage with Liberace.
Call Me Lee can be seen at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino (Main) Theatre, until 27 April 2014. You will kick yourself if you miss this.