Award winning television writer and playwright Richard Harris’ new work depicts the ups and downs of the life of Liza Minnelli, through turbulent marriages, problems with drugs and alcohol, a difficult relationship with her mother and, above all, a love for performance and being on the stage.
More than just biography, Harris’ play employs three totally different but equally impressive Minnelli’s on stage at one time who move fluidly between memory and fantasy, fact and fiction, and effortlessly weave into their performances the songs which have defined this icon’s career. Each actress reveals a different side to Liza and a takes on a different part of her personality which corresponds with a certain time in her life and career. Sometimes they bicker and argue but, as in some of the play’s strongest moments, just as often they stand together in agreement over someone or something they truly loved.
Felicity Duncan plays the Liza of the present day, and is a perfect fit for the singer and actress, inhabiting her personality well and making Harris’ careful turns of phrase seem Minnelli’s own. She brings a blunt but disarming wit to Minnelli which forces us to laugh with her throughout as she moulds the sometimes cruel “yo-yo” of her past into a light-hearted wisdom.
The young Liza, played by Stephanie Ticknell-Smith, is instead both more naïve and more principled, at times judgemental of her later self’s mistakes but always ultimately supportive. In Act I she plays out many of the childhood and adolescent memories we hear described to us by the older Liza, moving between difficulty at home with her successful mother to disappointing early auditions, but always approaching them with song, dance and a sweet and exciting attitude which so closely matches her vision of her own future.
Sabrina Carter takes over as Liza in Act II, portraying the actress in her most successful and fun-loving period, at the same time struggling with alcohol, drugs, numerous flings and marriages and an increasingly hostile press. Carter presents both the audience and the other Lizas with a sense of helplessness and tragedy throughout Minnelli’s life, mixed with true joy when she succeeds at what she seemed to love best; to sing, dance and perform for the audiences which loved her.
The set, complete (throughout Act I) with an ever present Judy Garland, takes on the appearance of Minnelli’s own apartment, with us as her guests. Neil Macdonald has a versatile role, delivering the lines of all the men who appear in Minnelli’s story, as well as providing piano accompaniment to the fragments of classic songs which pop up and vanish so smoothly throughout. Each actress delivers a powerful vocal performance, and each carries with her voice a unique phase in Minnelli’s story, from the optimism and excited ambition of the young Liza, to the simple strength of the older. The choreography is loose and varied throughout but always impressive, especially when all three actresses dance and sing together.
Richard Harris’ new production has a definite vibrancy, created through song, dance and a unique use of the same character in different places in her life, which presents us with a drama which feels real and immediate and stops the play ever straying off too far into biography. Most importantly, it does justice to the colour, the variety and the spirit of performance which was Liza Minnelli’s life and soul.