By Richard Schultz, October 2016 Issue.
To tackle the monumental theatrical role of Liberace, which attempts to explore the performer’s internal conflict between his public and private worlds, one must exude both versatility as a performer and talent as a musician.
With an impressive list of credentials to his name, Jeff Kennedy (pictured) was the perfect man for the job.
“One has to remember that he had established himself as a family friendly entertainer, and that he fiercely protected his career in a time when revealing he was gay would have ended it, Kennedy reminds. “This was one of the reasons I really wanted to do the play.”
Staged by Phoenix Theatre from Sept. 21-Oct. 9, Liberace! is an entertaining and moving tribute to the infamous American performer known for his charm, glitz and glamour. This one-man show explores the highs and lows of the famed pianist’s prolific life with a varied score, spanning classical and popular music from Chopin to “Chopsticks,” and Rachmaninoff to ragtime.
In addressing other portrayals of Liberace including, Michael Douglas in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Kennedy believes the biggest difference is this play’s point of view is that it focuses on someone who has lived their life as opposed to watching him live it in real time.
The playwright portrays Liberace looking back on his life, having made all of his discoveries, allowing him to come to some conclusions, right or wrong, and attempts to give insights as to why.
According to Kennedy, he immersed himself in extensive research, including reading Liberace’s autobiography, other biographies and reviewing interviews with Liberace and those who knew him well. He also spent endless hours watching film and video of him in performance, and, of course, listening to his recordings.
“It’s allowed me to determine some pretty specific aspects of how he thought and felt,” Kennedy said. “I feel the playwright really gives insight into his life and feelings. He wanted nothing more than to give his audiences an amazing entertainment experience.
Kennedy relishes Liberace’s “wicked sense of humor” and is trying to do it justice in his performance.
When asked if the production reveals any new insights into the man and the performer, Kennedy said he believes many aspects of his early career and relationship with his father will explore new ground for many audience members.
“He became such an icon, but like so many celebrities he was very troubled at times. The play brings that side of him to light,” Kennedy said. “It may also be a surprise how his demons are like many other individuals today. There’s something to understand about such a genius dealing with being so immensely famous in his time.”
Regarding the costumes for the show, Kennedy said he’s impressed with the designs by Connie Furr-Solomon.
“The authenticity of what I’m wearing is pretty amazing,” he said. “Since I have never worn costumes or clothing like this before, some of the reveals of these have become some of my favorite moments in the show.”
Liberace was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wis., on May 16, 1919. For decades, Liberace was known for his music, candelabra, charisma, diamonds and glittering costumes.
Known throughout the world as “Mr. Showmanship,” he was featured in films and had a television series in both the 1950s and 1960s. His performed in Las Vegas venues as well as New York, where broke all Radio City Music Hall’s sales and attendance records in 1984.
Liberace died in his Palm Springs home on Feb. 4, 1987, at the age of 67. Liberace’s death was later reported to have been of complications from AIDS.
This production is licensed by the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts.
Sept. 21-Oct. 9
100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix
Tickets: $36-$81; 602-254-2151