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‘Liberace!’ Returns to the Stackner Cabaret

Milwaukee Rep reprises its tribute to Milwaukee’s glitzy star

Oct. 28, 2014
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“The man encrusted his life with rhinestones—yet dined in Usinger’s tasting room,” says Brent Hazelton, writer and director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s upcoming production of Liberace!. “Fascinating contradictions. But that was his appeal—a Milwaukee guy, acting confounded by his success, with egregiously excessive tastes. But he also always delivered. He had the goods.”

When Milwaukee lists favorite sons, she rarely mentions Liberace. 

The West Allis native, born Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919), was raised in West Milwaukee. Capable of dizzying piano speed, he prodigiously played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—at 21. 

He was soon a virtuoso, pounding out everything “from Rachmaninoff to ragtime,” playing “Chopsticks” at Carnegie Hall, touring the world and recording albums in dozens. When that well ran dry, “Mr. Showmanship” added shining sequined capes, feathers and glitzy flamboyance to his trademark panache, flourishes and fantastic physical ferocity. 

“The Guru of Glitter” went Vegas main stage, doubling down on television and movie cameos. His enormous pop influence is still evident in, for instance, Elvis’ Las Vegas incarnation and Elton John’s piano showmanship. 

Liberace’s story ends in the 1980s. Tabloids rumored rampant about homosexuality and AIDS. And when he died from the disease, four decades of art flushed away, swirling down a drainpipe of scandal. 

But today, Liberace is reborn in his hometown, via the Milwaukee Rep’s Liberace!, running nine weeks at the Stackner Cabaret. Jack Forbes Wilson has played Wladziu in every show since the 2010-2011 premiere. 

At the outset, Hazelton knew little of Liberace. “Vague childhood recollections: ‘The Muppet Show,’ outlandish costumes—a cultural curiosity,” he says. “But he is astonishing. Genuinely inspiring. Rags-to-riches. Marvelous determination and love. Sorting through the hyperbole, hysteria and loaded imagery—without turning it into a tabloid mess, was the great challenge.”  

For Wilson, meanwhile, the challenge was physical. “Liberace’s recordings, his clips—they’re flawless, effortless,” he said. “He never landed a clunker. You can’t fake that.” 

The show includes 10-12 pieces from Liberace’s enormous catalogue. “Liszt, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff,” Wilson says. “Chopin was his favorite. Standards—‘I’ll Be Seeing You’—and of course, ‘Boogie Woogie’ and ragtime.”  

Incredibly, Wilson performs without a score. “Liberace was a genius, learning instantly,” he continues. “And once his career took off, he spent even less time practicing. He was tuned in to a 21st-century attention span, too. He never let audiences get squirmy. Brent captures that. We don’t go too long without playing.” 

Liberace was also tuned in to Middle America—which both men attribute to his hometown. “He’s a Midwesterner through and through,” Hazelton agrees. “He knew how to reach them. And they claimed him as their own.”  

“We think he’s extravagant,” Wilson says. “But he created that persona for the audience. He went right up to that line—without ever crossing it.” But that likely killed him, too. As Liberace drove himself deeper into the closet, he “increasingly replaced emotionally normative relationships with sexual encounters,” Hazelton says. “It was a painful dichotomy.” 

“He gave audiences whatever they wanted—and they didn’t want that,” Wilson agrees. “His audience wasn’t gay. And they didn’t think of him as ‘a homo.’ He was flashy, entertaining, delightful and fun.” 

And unlike Rock Hudson, Liberace never publically discussed sexuality. “I guess he saw what Rock’s admission did to his career and legacy,” Wilson said.  

“I grew awfully fond of Liberace, writing this,” Hazelton concludes. “I envisioned it like a coda, a postscript, an opportunity for him to stand before audiences as he never could in life. But this isn’t ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ either. People should expect a good time. Lots of laughs. Diverse, terrific music—played in that wonderful, unique Jack Forbes Wilson way.” 

“All I ever wanted was to have fun and fill the world with happiness,” Wilson quotes Liberace. “We want to do that, too. Yeah, the end is sad and lonely. But his story is sheer musical fun, too.” 

And, best for last—a Liberace homage: What about costumes? “Well, changing would mean taking my clothes off right there. Liberace didn’t seem to mind, in the right company,” Wilson laughs. “But Brent has solved it here brilliantly. We give ’em a real taste of the glitz.” 

Liberace! runs Nov. 7-Jan. 11, 2015 at Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets visit milwaukeerep.com or call 414-224-9490.


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