People don’t take men in dresses seriously. It’s a real pity – because sometimes those frocked men are really worth listening to. Trevor Ashley gives a better performance of Liza Minnelli in full flight than Minnelli herself can manage these days and that is a singular, powerful theatrical achievement. His remarkable show, Liza’s Back! (is broken) is an extraordinary achievement – one that anyone with an interest in musical theatre should race to see. This is not a club act for gay men in the know – it’s a feast for anyone interested in music, Broadway and Minnelli.
If you can only spend two hours in the next week, month or year in a theatre, do yourself a favour and hotfoot it to the London Wonderground Spiegeltent on Southbank where you will find Trevor Ashley’s high-energy, bravura solo act, Liza’s Back! (is broken!). It’s funnier than any show playing in the West End, deliciously and daringly making laughter erupt unexpectedly, but it has a decisively poignant and melancholic aspect as well, as Ashley, in total Liza Minnelli mode, explores the savage cruelty of performers’ lives lived in full view.
The notion of a tour de force is bandied around all too easily these days, but this performance by Ashley is exactly that: an unforgettable tour de force.
While Ashley is undoubtedly in drag, Liza’s Back! (is broken) is not a drag show. It’s more subtle, more demanding, and more impressive than that and, crucially, Ashley does not lip sync any numbers. Rather, this is a homage to Liza Minnelli which is both loving and excoriating; an ambitious character piece which riffs on the collective experience audiences have had watching Minnelli over the years. It’s brutal and brilliant – and not even Minnelli herself can play the notion of Minnelli with anything like the dazzling insight and overwhelming musicality that Ashley brings to bear.
The underlying concept of the show is simple: Minnelli in concert discussing and performing the roles she never played – but could or might have. If she had been born or asked. It’s a brilliant conceit which allows Ashley to demonstrate precisely how good he is at being Minnelli.
Not every song Ashley performs has been recorded by Minnelli, or at least not every song is readily available in a Minnelli version. So the audience does not always have a Minnelli version as a comparator. But everyone has their own experience of Minnelli, from film, television and live appearances, and so everyone can decide for themselves whether Ashley is on the money or wide of the mark.
He is unquestionably on the money.
Many times during this performance you could close your eyes and truly believe you were listening to Minnelli sing (except that Ashley’s voice is bigger and broader than hers has been for some decades). The phrasing, the throaty alcohol and cigarette stained vibrato, the pure belt, the quirky expressions of pain, the unadulterated joie de vivre, the growl which paves the way for fabulously free top notes, the sense of uncertainty that the voice will hold – Ashley has it all perfectly honed.
This is true, too, of Minnelli’s speaking voice. Ashley is so soaked in the sound, and essence of the sound, Minnelli makes, that he can effortlessly flirt with, or badger, the audience without, for even a second, stepping out of his Minnelli bubble. This permits asides and comic moments to be blisteringly effective – nothing halts the flow, the stream of consciousness. An aside about Eliza with a Z, a number Minnelli remembers as cut from My Fair Lady, is hilarious because Ashley sings, speaks and breathes Minnelli.
The physicality of the performance is also pitch-perfect. Ashley walks and dances in Minnelli’s way, the flourishes exact and characteristically overdone; the wrists snap to a Fosse beat; hands and feet shimmy and precisely emphasise musical rhythms; poses are iconic and astutely flashy/trashy. Hair and make-up is precisely right; it is astonishing to watch the hair disintegrate over the course of the performance – as Minnelli’s often does in live performance – without Ashley doing anything obvious to help it along.
The outfits are suitably glitzy – fabulously reflective of pant suits Minnelli favoured at one stage in her career. An overlong and vibrantly red scarf makes for the perfect accoutrement and permits Ashley room to make fun of signature Minnelli foibles; the moment of self-strangulation was a masterful touch.
Liza’s Back! (is broken) is full of such touches and it is the constant ingenuity in unerringly skewering Minnelli which makes the entertainment rich and hysterical. When Ashley performs Cassie’s solo dance routine from The Music and the Mirror the humour comes not just from the cod facsimile of the A Chorus Line choreography but also because it looks like what Minnelli herself might have attempted. The fabulously tacky upbeat version of Les Miserables’ Do You Hear The People Sing? smartly encapsulates Minnelli’s passion for cheerleader extravagance, just as Memory and As If I Never Said Goodbye permit Ashley to reflect different, more reflective, aspects of the Minnelli phenomenon.
The most astonishing achievement is that, despite the grotesque exaggerations of traits and ability, Ashley’s Liza is real. She becomes a version of the great diva that the audience sympathises with – and adores. The lounge singer version of Send In The Clowns is truly funny in the opening verses but, imperceptibly, along the way Ashley darkens the magnifying glass and the mood becomes reflective, insular and moving. He does it again in If He Walked Into My Life – revealing his own range as a performer as well as shining a light into darker corners of Minnelli’s.
The patter and linking material is terrific, brash and vigorously acerbic, with targets like Barbra Streisand, Angela Lansbury, Ethel Merman (did he really call her a cunt?) and Julie Andrews. It’s all knowing and very, very funny. Inevitably, with so much discussion of showbiz legends, Judy Garland comes into the spotlight. Ashley embodies her spirit, voice and power with all the same intensity and brio he brings to Minnelli herself.
Suddenly, Liza is gone and Judy is there. It’s quite thrilling to watch the change and absorb the differences – as well as the similarities. Once you see Ashley’s Garland, you note the grace notes from her which pepper his Minnelli, just as, in life, daughter reflects mother. Quite terrific.
Rightly, Ashley delivers powerhouse versions of Minnelli standards, his generous affability and stimulating vocal elasticity working overtime. But, for me, the unexpected numbers were the high points. The Wizard and Me from Wicked was unfeasibly good; Don’t Cry For Me Argentina was equally, surprisingly, good.
While it is a one man show, Ashley is far from unsupported. The very gifted Phil Scott assisted with the comic material; his incisive satirical style really supports Ashley (they wrote together) in the overall aims of the performance. In addition to acerbic writing support, Ashley also has magical musical support.
Tom Brady, alarmingly young for such exemplary skill, is a fastidious and funky musical director and he ensures that the hot, smoking band supports and truly accompanies Ashley’s every musical phrase. The balance was superb, the beats unrelentingly vibrant and the sense unmistakably Broadway. The band – Allan Cox, Nicola Davenport, Seb Philpott, Dave Hopkin, Billy Yates and Jen Chilton Reeds – was sensational.
The title Liza’s Back (is broken!) reflects the duality of the evening. By the end, you are sated. You have laughed and laughed, but you have also seen, clearly, the darker elements that world-wide fame can whip up. Life is a cabaret, old chum.
There is nothing broken here. Truly wonderful.