Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:58

The blingiest Piano Man ever

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My grandfather used to go through several sets of dentures every time he saw American entertainer Liberace on the television ... but there is no denying that this superb pianist was one of the greatest showmen of the 20th century.

Liberace and his outrageous sense of costume preceded Elvis Presley, Abba, Elton John, Madonna, Michael Jackson and even Lady Gaga.

Long before the term "bling bling" was coined he would have made an 18th-century fop jealous with his extravagant and glittering outfits, piano playing and the infamous candelabra on the grand piano.

In fact he singlehandedly seemed to to keep the rhinestone and sequin industries in business in his later years.

My favourite "Liberace in South Africa" story was when he tapped the late great Joan Brickhill on the shoulder and told her: "I've been watching you, you know, and you're a madam and I like you." She repeated the exact same words back to him and they became lifelong  friends.

But even Liberace was upstaged by the latest performance of one of South Africa's most talented stage presences, Jonathan Roxsmouth. I have seen Jonathan in the Phantom of the Opera, in a Gilbert and Sulllivan musical medley and even as Noel Coward, but I have never seen anyone's fingers fly over the piano keys as deftly as Jonathan's did at the opening night of Call Me Lee, which was on at the Pieter Toerien Theatre this year.

The show is an Ian von Memerty production - he of A Handful of Keys fame, and no stranger to tinkling the ivories himself.

Jonathan tends to get under the skin of his subjects and he captured that almost whiny nasally sweetness that was one of Liberace's signatures. Although every now and then he did drop into the infuriating parody of an American accent that every South African actor seems to adopt on stage. If we cannot get an American accent right, it would almost be better to use our own Seffrican accents (Michael Douglas knocked the Liberace voice on its head - but then he is American).

But no one could fault Jonathan's virtuosity on a piano. He was about as good as Liberace himself, and I do not exaggerate.

One of my favourite pieces from the show was the performance of Chopsticks, a piece of music "from the Orient never before played by the Hollywood Bowl orchestra", which a sequin-suited and ruffled-sleeved Jonathan, with great enjoyment, allowed to meander, explore and flourish along the piano keys like a luxuriant plant.

But there was a host of goodies, from the opening number Milwaukee on Parade, with its hint of ragtime, to Kitten on the Keys at the Red Room Bar (where I suspect Liberace honed his sartorial extravagance) to Yankee Doodle Dandy/Stars & Stripes which brought the audience back to his Milwaukee roots (together with a very tight little pair of shorts decorated with the American flag).

All interspersed with serious classical pieces which were performed superbly. 

And of course what would a show about Liberace be without I'll Be Seeing You, I'm Always Chasing Rainbows, Boogie Woogie, When Liberace Winks at You and the very toetapping Beer Barrel Polka.

And Cement Mixer, just to bring a touch of bathos to the proceedings.

If you are a Liberace fan - and a great many of the more mature audience members were - there was plenty to delight besides the piano playing and the outré costumes. Many of Liberace's famous quotes were supplied, such as: "Do you like my coat? You paid for it", and: "This isn't the most outrageous of my wardrobe but it is the most expensive. Wanna know why? It's the buttons. They're real diamonds, but I couldn't come out here in just the diamonds".

Another stellar performance came from Weslee Lauder who played a number of roles, from Liberace's brother through to his dresser. His dance floor moves which I remember from last year's Aladdin pantomime, when he played the Emperor Wun Tun Tum, were just as slick and there were times when I feared he might even steal the show.

Samuel Hyde played the fast-talking, opportunity seizing agent, the palimony grabbing Scott Thorson as well as various other roles and completed a great trio of talent.

Not much else to say, except to use another famous Liberace quote.

When asked how he could play the piano with so many rings, he replied:  "Very well, thank you!".


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