Remember Liberace? The Wisconsin-born piano prodigy who for decades reigned as an American superstar by building an entertainment empire of TV and a mainstay Vegas act that paid him up to $300,000 a week?
If you don't, the Walnut's Independence Studio on 3 production of Liberace! contains plenty of historical information to fill you in.
Writer/director Brent Hazelton's 2010 show winks at the idea that many may not remember the pop icon. After Jack Forbes Wilson's Liberace announces a drawling "I'm ba-ack!," he launches into a more formal introduction, starting with the pronunciation of his full name (Wladziu Valentino Liberace), reflecting his Italian-Polish heritage.
During the hourlong first act, Hazelton's script pours on the biographic details: schooling; early success at recitals and national competitions; and Liberace's first, mostly positive encounters with music critics. Wilson intersperses some virtuosic renditions of classics, standards, and pop music, giving glimpses into the flamboyant performances that earned Liberace the nickname "Mr. Showmanship."
His trademark candelabras are present; a magnificent Gothic one stands atop the lacquered, seven-foot grand piano that roars in the Independence Studio's small space. Costumer Alex Tecoma has been inspired by some of Liberace's most glamorous (and gaudy) attire. The rhinestone-and-feather budget probably didn't match what Liberace paid for ever-more-outrageous outfits (more than 10 grand in the 1960s), but it reflects the excess that Liberace embraced when he declared, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."
But why does Hazelton have Wilson, a Wisconsinite himself, speak nasally, confusing anyone with any exposure to Liberace? (Or anyone from Wisconsin?) Dozens of YouTube videos provide evidence of Liberace's Wisconsin drawl (think long A's like the characters in Fargo), and the articulate, full-voiced manner in which he spoke and performed.
And although Wilson displays lots of keyboard ability and does a fine job sustaining the energy throughout a very long two hours, the script lacks any conflict until the last 20 minutes, and aside from the musical virtuosity, provides little that captivates.
As the character repeatedly insists throughout the play, Liberace performed in order to feel loved by and connected to his audience. I doubt, though, that Liberace! is how he would want to be remembered.
Through April 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St.
Information: 215-574-3550 or www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org