Somewhere Under the Rainbow, Ireland

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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Sharon Sexton belts a la Liza in “Somehwere Under the Rainbow”
Photo from the “Somewhere” website

‘Somewhere Under the Rainbow: The Liza Minnelli Story’

Written and directed by Cillian O’Donnachadha
Pavillion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
June 23, 2011
First Irish tour through July
(See video short below.)

“People love to compare”, Liza (Sharon Sexton) tells us, describing her mixed emotions while gunning for the role of Sally Bowles in the film version of “Cabaret.” Having ground out something of a reputation for herself on the stage (though perhaps not yet entirely possessed of an identity), Liza knows that her entry to musical film will be compared to that of her mother, which can’t bode well.

The same dilemma confronts Sharon Sexton as she impersonates Minnelli in this largely one-woman show, accompanied by pianist and musical arranger Ivan McKenna. She has Liza down, replete with vocal tics, gestures and movements drawn from what must have been exhaustive study. She also sings like Liza, catching the cadences and tones with eerie precision, to the point where at times it is possible to lose yourself in the performance. But this production is half-biographical monologue, half-musical performance, and in both dimensions Sexton is faced with the difficult task of inhabiting rather than impersonating her subject in order to invest the show with real emotional energy. This sort of thing is never easy, and with Minnelli as subject, the inevitable slippages between hoary old backstage clichés and the all-too-true facts of the performer’s difficult life journey don’t lend themselves very well to ontological clarity.

Cillian O’Donnachada’s script is really a series of biographical musings that stitch together song after song, each illustrating some aspect of the life story which Liza explains to us. She sings “Maybe This Time” as she tells of breaking into Broadway. She sings “Losing My Mind” when Judy Garland dies and Liza begins to spiral. Then, after the interval, she bursts upon the audience with “Rain on My Parade” as a kind of rejoinder to any grumbling that might have taken place over drinks. Inevitably, we conclude with “Cabaret,” which can only be read like the last speech from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as an appeal for understanding. Unfortunately, the script offers nothing truly insightful or surprising to promote this understanding, taking a fairly straight line through some, but not all, of Minnelli’s story.

As a literary narrative, it actually peters out after Garland’s death, giving way to a dynamic and entertaining second act that is entirely presented as staged performance. The first act props suggesting a dressing room have been taken out, and McKenna sits at a grand piano, visible now and performing live. Sexton then bursts in in full Liza mode and belts out “Liza with a ‘Z’,” “Ring Them Bells,” and “Use What You’ve Got” with all the command and presence of a seasoned veteran holding a Broadway audience in the palm of her hand. The audience, for its part, responds as it should: with thunderous and repeated applause after every song. They laugh at her jokes, they listen to her framing each song as if Liza herself is doing it, and for all the world it might as well be “An Evening with Liza Minnelli.” It’s a great show at this point, and Sexton is really good, but the play has dissolved, and all pretense of interpretation or analysis has evaporated in a hailstorm of entertainment.

The backstage decor returns briefly for “Cabaret,” but the show has become entirely schizoid by then, and when Sexton ceases impersonating Liza taking her bows to her audience and returns as herself (but still in costume and, with the aid of Ali Murphy’s hair and make-up, she looks uncannily like Minnelli) to take Sharon Sexton’s bows from we the audience, all connection with a coherent frame of representation has been lost. What remains is a tremendously enjoyable series of performed performances, in which Sexton has found something of a register to portray Minnelli rather than simply project her, but which has fallen short of using what it’s got to really get under the skin of this sordid tale of showbiz obsolescence—the tragedy of a talented song-and-dance girl from a time in which no one really needed one anymore. This is not so much the Liza Minnelli story as it is the songs of Liza Minnelli, and though these may, of course (and should) reflect the storyteller that sings them, and we can read into soulful renditions of “Quiet Love” and “Sorry I Asked” plenty of things that we may know of from beyond the text, it doesn’t really make sense as a piece of theatre structured this way.

This production has been on a steady tour of smaller sites, but, according to the web site, has ambitions to take to a bigger venue this or next year. I’m not entirely sure this would do the production any favours, as the fairly limited amount of dance choreography is lacking in snap and precision (not a lot of Fosse here, and a half-explained apologia about the difficulty of filming the chair sequence from “Cabaret” doesn’t really excuse it), and what works best about the first-half drama scenes is the sense of intimacy that a larger stage could dilute. Still, it would be interesting to see if Sexton can carry her tremendous energy beyond the fringe circuit and make a significant mark worth of her workrate. Her performance is fun to watch, she sings well, and there’s plenty of heart and honesty in what she’s doing, but maybe the schisms that define this vehicle are too apt by far on some level, and we’re left knowing nothing more than can be known about this subject beyond what has always been evident.

Harvey O’Brien

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