Review: Milwaukee Pays Tribute to Hometown Legend in Liberace!

While Chicago can lay claim to many headliners of the past, only Milwaukee had a major influence in the life of a piano prodigy who eventually became known as a superstar, Liberace. The one-man show, Liberace!, is the holiday offering of longtime theater company Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

As its name implies, the “chamber” part of this company’s title indicates that it performs its shows in a relatively small, intimate space. Only about 100 seats separate the audience from the stage. Opening night was completely sold out, no doubt due to the fact that another Milwaukee theater, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, staged this production in 2010 and 2014 in its cabaret space.

This time, the Studio Theater has been decked out for the occasion. Multiple crystal chandeliers swing above the audience, and the set (by Scott Davis) is dominated by a gleaming black grand piano. It takes a while for Liberace’s signature candelabra to appear, but it eventually takes its familiar place on the piano. Sets of closed, red velvet curtains in the background conceal some of Liberace’s glitzier outfits. These are revealed in the second act, as Liberace recounts his rise to fame. Credit for the impressive lighting goes to Noele Stollmack.

The play was written and directed by the theater's artistic director Brent Hazelton, who was working at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre at the time. The show’s music was composed by Jack Forbes Wilson, with additional compositions by Paul Helm.

Milwaukee native Brett Ryback recreates the charm and talent of Liberace. Photo by Mark Frohna.

This time, the man in glitter is portrayed by Milwaukee native Brett Ryback. Although his resemblance to the real Liberace is slight, he captures the man’s vocal inflections as well as piano flourishes with ease. Ryback is a handsome dude and impresses with his buoyant stage flair. Most importantly, he is able to communicate Liberace’s appeal to audiences worldwide.

These days, only a musical superstar like Taylor Swift approximates the adulation of Liberace in his prime.

Raised in West Allis, Wis., by a frugal mother and a demanding father, Ryback’s Liberace takes us chronologically through his timeline on Earth. He grew up poor, as most immigrant families did. He couldn't pay for schooling, and received scholarships to cover his expenses. Over time, Liberace raised himself up from meager beginnings to become one of the best-known (and best-paid) celebrities of the 20th century.

For the uninitiated, Ryback points out that Liberace died in 1987, when he was in his late 60s.

However, that doesn’t stop the chatty (deceased) Liberace from commenting about current Milwaukee landmarks. He tells the audience that he is pleased that Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater still stands, although he does not know what to make of the odd-looking structure on the other side of downtown (Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, home to the Bucks basketball team). He marvels that Milwaukee’s old country stadium is now a mammoth building with a retractable roof (for Milwaukee Brewers games). He is sad that one of Milwaukee's foremost performing spaces disappeared to the wrecking crane long ago.

For the older members in the audience, Ryback briefly recounts some of the stages he shared with Hildegarde, another popular, one-name Milwaukee performer from yesteryear.

Long before Liberace became known as “Mr. Showmanship,” he studied earnestly at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His playing impressed even the greatest classical pianists of his time and, for a while, it looked like Liberace would fulfill his father’s ambition of becoming a concert pianist.

A Performance That Altered the Direction of Liberace’s Career

But a performance in La Crosse, Wis., changed all that. When he began asking for audience requests, someone shouted out, “Three Little Fishies.” Liberace rose to the challenge. He played the piece, and then began experimenting with how other famous composers would tackle the assignment. The performance was an absolute hit, and Liberace found his longed-for connection with his audience. Although he found little love at home, he was able to give and receive affection with his audiences while onstage.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre recalls one of Milwaukee's most famous sons in Liberace! Photo by Mark Frohna.

Today, Liberace’s rise to fame would be called “meteoric.” In 1953, he sold two million records. Despite some terrible reviews from New York music critics, Liberace eventually conquered Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show, which was filmed in New York.  His was a household name, in the way that Rihanna, Madonna and Prince are for current music lovers.

All this adulation meant a steady stream of cash, which Liberace spent on fabulous homes, cars, jewelry and furs. Interestingly, this very flamboyant man was considered a sex symbol, especially to mature women. His stage outfits began to rival those of Elvis in his Las Vegas years (in fact, Ryback hints that he was a mentor to Elivs in this regard).  In Liberace, costume designer Alex Tecoma knocks audiences out of its socks.

While dropping bits of Hollywood gossip or pounding on the keys, Rybeck is a riveting presence onstage. His musical chops are certainly up to the task, as he delivers tunes by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. His breathtaking (and very physical) musical presence indicates the adulation audiences felt for him. After every somber musical piece, Ryback would turn to the audience with a wide grin and crack a well-worn joke or two. (The jokes were corny, but squeaky-clean. In those days, nearly every top performer was expected to entertain the whole family.)

In rare moments, especially near the end of the show, Rybeck tones down the flamboyance and becomes more “authentic.” As a top star of his time, Liberace’s life wasn’t publicity-free. Newspaper gossip columnists hinted at his homosexuality. In later life, Liberace was hounded by a 1982 “palimony” suit brought by a former lover. The story is a trenchant reminder of how actors needed to be “closeted” in those days in order to keep their fans. Ryback talks a bit about how he managed to lead a gay lifestyle under the noses of those who could expose him at any moment. Liberace had scores of lovers over the years, as long as he could keep the details private. But he struggled between keeping this life separate from his public one.

A Sad Ending for a Once-Great Performer

Liberace delves far more deeply into his final years. He recalls being shocked when fellow celebrity (and former lover) Rock Hudson was stricken by AIDS. It wasn’t long afterwards that Liberace’s own health began to deteriorate. Undaunted, he continued to perform in concert until almost the end. He kept his diagnosis to himself, telling only family members and his staff. A few days before he died, a newspaper revealed that he was dying from complications related to AIDS. That seemed to be the final insult to a man who had tried so hard to keep his public image as golden as possible.

Liberace! continues at the Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, through December 10. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission. For more information on this and other Milwaukee Chamber Theatre productions, call 414-291-7800, or click on www.Milwaukeechambertheatre.org.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.