NEW YORK - Nine years have passed since Liza Minnelli last appeared on Broadway, and she's more than making up for lost time.
Liza's at the Palace - staged on the site of her previous Broadway concert, in the epic theater where her late mother, Judy Garland, forged her own triumphs - easily competes with the subways in rocking Broadway, and not just because the show's crystalline amplification rachets up the decibels. In yet another comeback, Minnelli erases any question about her raw power to continue to command a stage and enrapture an audience.
Liza's at the Palace consists of the star and 16 guys - a dozen in the tuxedoed, first-rate orchestra and four terrific song-and-dance men who accompany her in the second part. They all add fuel to her fire, but Minnelli clearly is the flamethrower, with a knock-'em-dead voice whose come-hither beckon is still as rich as its belt.
She's 62, and in one part of her show the bare thighs that peek over knee-high black suede boots speak volumes about her performance persona: Minnelli is thus far ageless.
Or more accurately, thus far ageless, again. In a night heavy with songs about the vagaries of love, she's husband-free for the fourth time and self-deprecating about "my expensive research" on the subject. Ditto, the substance abuse with which she's plagued herself. When she pauses for effect just after reciting a line about "too much pills and liquor" during an audience-melting performance of "Cabaret," people laugh in recognition of her recognition of a tabloid history.
Most remarkably, since the century turned Minnelli has made a comeback, for real. A bout of the viral brain disease encephalitis in 2000 had doctors telling her she'd taken her final bow. That's when she became a genuine diva, learning again to talk, move, sing.
Her singing is trademark gutsy, with its stylized delivery, her percussive pronunciation of the s, her stressed t that ends some lyrical lines with its own drumbeat, her interpretation that turns lyrics into little dramas. There's something both fresh and classic about Minnelli, leaning against the piano of her brilliant musical supervisor and pianist, Billy Stritch, and giving the brass players behind her a run for their money. But mostly it's lush.
Minnelli ends the concert trumpeting a signature song, the theme from the film New York, New York. She's slimmed down - Halston's four outfits drape her short, leggy frame perfectly - and in a blazing red, shoulder-slipping boat-neck top accentuated by her mop of black hair, she's a cardinal just in from Central Park, by way of a few thousand sequins from the Garment District.
A performer half her age could easily summon - perhaps - half her energy. She's breathless between songs, and it's no wonder; in any case, her sheer ebullience has a breathlessness to it. Yet the minute she begins to sing, she's uncannily in complete control again.
You can swoon over the campy aspect of her performance persona - plenty of people seemed to on opening night - but that sells Minnelli short. When she ends "Maybe This Time" by shooting her perfectly rigid body into an angle, supported on a director's stool, it's more than camp, it's a theatrical statement that keeps the lyrics going after she's done with them.
That song, like many in the show, was written by Broadway greats John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose work gave Minnelli many of her best shots on stage. Liza's at the Palace is very much a family show - she recalls her mother and her father, the late film director Vincente Minnelli, in narration, and in a medley of old songs Garland also sang at the Palace. (Minnelli is the only Oscar-winning child of two Oscar winners.)
Much of the second half is devoted to the music of Minnelli's godmother, Kay Thompson, the late radio and nightclub star, vocal arranger and author of the classic Eloise children's books who acted as a sort of second mother to her. Even Ron Lewis' spunky direction and choreography can't keep this portion of the show from feeling like a souped-up Broadway version of already overdone documentary footage.
But it all ends up fine, finishing on opening night with an encore of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which her mother sang in 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by her father.
"I have no more loud music," she said as the house sat back down for the encore. She was right - this was Minnelli pure and simple, backed only by Stritch on the piano. Maybe the rendition was genetically informed by her parents, but it was intense and sincere, all her own - simple, distilled Minnelli, with a holiday sentiment you couldn't possibly get in the mail.