There are those who would argue that Liza (Minnelli, that is) has become so much of a self-parody that the best of her impersonators are actually more convincing than she is. That’s the cynical view, of course, but it is something that crossed my mind on more than a few occasions during Trevor Ashley’s barnstorming turn as a performance-high Liza on an E. And the wonder of his show is that he manages both to parody and to celebrate an extraordinary talent at more or less one and the same time. There is mockery and affection in equal measure and as one who has experienced the edge of this quixotic star at close quarters (that’s another story from the archives of my BBC radio show “Stage & Screen”) I could empathise totally with both sides of the equation. When Ashley’s Liza puts down Streisand relegating her from best friend to bitch in a heartbeat you know he’s hitting it about right.
“Liza is a whole lot more than giggles, gays, and Garland”, ventures Ashley early in the show – and yet the reality is that those three Gs pretty much define her. Not for nothing does he include the first of Mama Rose’s “turns” from Gypsy – “Some People”. Minnelli has never truly escaped her mother’s shadow and when Ashley substitutes Mama for Elsie in the inevitable rendition of “Cabaret” he fairly spits out the punchline “And when I go I’m NOT going like Mama!” More than a little home truth in that bitterness. Liza the survivor.
From a performance point of view Ashley pretty much has Liza – the insane giggle, the manic hyperactivity, the breathiness, the popping, spluttering, microphone noises – and whilst he actually has a whole lot more voice than Liza has had for years now you could still drive a hearse through that vibrato. There’s a lovely moment when Ashley/Liza coaches her fresh-faced, fresh-voiced “guest” Christopher Mitchell and suggests he try his Peter Allen number without vibrato. Yea, right. Self-delusion is everywhere. And there are the moves, too, the exocet arms and frozen poses all of it disintegrating into a kind of feverish inebriation between numbers. A running gag has us wondering what’s in the glass and the kicker comes when she’s handed a bottle of water and deals with it like it’s radioactive, almost gagging at the prospect of a sip.
But the cleverness of the show (written by Ashley and Dean Bryant) is the way in which the classic “straight” numbers are juxtaposed with the parodies. There’s a very funny David Guest number masquerading as “Mein Herr” replete, of course, with chair contortions. And there’s a big surprise towards the end of the show, a serious moment of distillation, where Ashley manages to silence a delirious audience (with more than its fair share of trans-gender Lizas) with an ineffably touching tribute to Garland and Liza, mother and daughter both seeking that elusive thing called love but always alone in the spotlight. That moment really took us unawares and connected effortlessly to a poignant mash-up of “Losing My Mind” and “Maybe This Time”, the piano intro for the latter wrong-footing us into the former. George Dyer, Ashley’s MD, did a beautiful job and the band were cracking.
But then the laugh that sticks in your throat – how they’re all gone, Mama, Papa, Lorna… “Well actually she’s still here but who cares…” And the inevitable, obligatory “New York, New York” with its now legendary wind-up, arm revving like a propellor, tempo stretching, voice roaring. But let’s be clear, Trevor Ashley is no generic drag-queen act but something a whole lot more sophisticated. He has what Liza has – star quality – and that’s why the show lands in the way that it does. My only caveat is that he should have attempted what Liza never could or would (because, as she always said, “it’s been sung”) and given us “Over the Rainbow” just as Judy used to give it sitting on the edge of the stage. He can’t do Judy – no one can. She was simply better; she was inimitable. And I guess the sad thing is that Liza has always known that.