In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Only one person could possibly wear this outfit created by the Milwaukee Rep's costume shop. Yup, it's "Liberace!" (PHOTO: Brent Hazelton)

Liberace, Gilbert and Sullivan coming to theaters near you

You gotta love a theater town that has the world premiere of a play about Liberace and a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta opening on the same weekend. Talk about fun. And how great would it be to have Liberace performing Gilbert and Sullivan?

That fantasy will have to wait a while longer. In the mean time, we have "Liberace!" making its debut Sunday in the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret, and Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" opening Friday in a Skylight Opera Theatre production at the Broadway Theatre Center.

"Liberace!" owes its existence to the arrival of Englishman Mark Clements at the Rep as the company's new artistic director. The flamboyant pianist was hugely popular in Britain, and as he was planning his first season, Clements asked if the Rep had ever done a show about West Allis' native son. When he was told no, the artistic director set about changing that.

The Rep first spoke with a Las Vegas-based entertainer who does a Liberace revue. The idea was for his show to be fleshed out a bit for a Stackner engagement. After the deal did not materialize, the company decided to generate its own in-house Liberace production, and it tapped artistic associate Brent Hazelton to write and direct it.

Hazelton is a Whitewater native who was an acting intern at the Rep during the 1999-2000 season. He stopped acting but stayed with the company after his internship, moving up the administrative ladder from house manager of the Stiemke Theater to artistic assistant and now artistic associate.

In that job he recruits and supervises the annual class of acting and directing interns, coordinates season casting for all of the actors, directs Rep staged readings at Ten Chimneys and has other artistic responsibilities.

His assignment was to write a one-man play about Liberace, including the positive and negative twists and turns in the entertainer's life. The title character would play the piano, but the show was not to be a musical.

Liberace's career had peaked decades before the 30-something Hazelton first saw him as a kid on "The Muppet Show," so he dived into research about the entertainer who had once called himself "Walter Busterkeys." "The first thing I did was go to YouTube," Hazelton recently said.

"I saw Liberace in a simple tux playing classical piano." That was from the 1950s, when the musician had a TV program that scored twice the ratings of "I Love Lucy" and he was considered the most popular entertainer in America.

"I wondered, how did that fellow turn into the guy with the fur capes?" Hazelton continued. His play's goal is to tell the story, exploring the contradictions in the pianist's life.

"Liberace's career is an American history lesson. You can trace back to him almost any major American cultural movement or phenomenon since World War II, either as the engine of it, a significant participant or as a reaction against it. He was the forerunner of the big pop music performers.

"Kiss, Boy George, Prince. The Ziggy Stardust thing. Liberace is Lady Gaga's spiritual great-grandfather."

And then there is Elvis. "The gold lame jacket we attribute to Elvis, was literally from Liberace," Hazelton said.

"When Elvis went to Vegas, he initially struggled because Vegas didn't know what to do with him. Liberace told him, wear this coat."

The new play uses the conceit of Liberace returning from the grave to perform a concert for his fans. His intent is to set his campy and oversized image straight.

The Rep asked popular Milwaukee musician-actor Jack Forbes Wilson to play Liberace, but he did not immediately agree. "I didn't say yes right away because Liberace was a phenomenal piano player and I am not. He played with the Chicago Symphony at 19," Wilson explained.

"Every musician who played with him had the utmost respect for him."

Wilson is probably being a bit modest in assessing his own ability as a pianist, and he possesses an ebullient performing style that connects with audiences. He will not attempt to impersonate Liberace.

"There was more than one Liberace," he said. "The showman -- the smile, the pitch of voice, -- was a creation of his. In private, that went away and he sounded like a guy from West Allis."

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