While there’s no shortage of Liza Minnelli impersonators in the world, most folks who take on the messy triple-threat as a character turn the act into one long punch line. Despite holding a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar, the legendary performer’s career has had enough uppers and downers for three lifetimes, making her one of entertainment’s easiest targets. But in conceiving her cabaret show Liza Live!, artist Jennifer Walls aims to buck all expectations.
“For me, impersonation is about a certain kind of truth and honesty,” says the Renfrew, Ontario, native, who also performs as Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Kelly Clarkson. “My focus is on finding the full emotional range of her as a character, rather than turning the whole thing into a big joke. I don’t think people expect moments of seriousness and vulnerability from someone with such an over-the-top persona. We’re thinking of it as taking down the sequined curtain to show all the blood and guts behind it.”
Though she’s been perfecting her impersonation of Minnelli since she was at Sheridan College, Walls and her team went into deep research mode for the production. They pored over old interviews, concert footage and articles in their aim to create a portrait that was both complete and surprising. Part cabaret, part interactive talk show, the event features plenty of Minnelli’s signature songs, mixed with storytelling and audience participation.
Despite the seemingly ever-increasing culture of reality-television over-share, many celebrities now guard their privacy more carefully than ever. But for Minnelli, being the daughter of Hollywood royalty Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli meant being under the media microscope practically from birth.
“People feel like they know a lot about Liza because so many of her darker moments have been lived in public,” Walls says. “But we’re aiming to give people a different side of her, letting them see how what she’s been through makes her who she is.”
Despite Minnelli’s status as tabloid favourite, Walls sees a genuine story of inspiration in her “show must go on” attitude. Through four failed marriages (two with gay men), three miscarriages and several well-publicized stints in rehab, she’s never given up on her career. Not even a case of viral encephalitis in 2000, which doctors predicted would leave her wheelchair bound and unable to speak for life, was enough to keep her offstage. She returned to Madison Square Garden to play a show the following year and was back on Broadway in 2009.
“The goal is to give people more of an insight into her life,” Walls says. “She’s faced huge adversity at different points and still managed to keep going. She’s a true individual and proof you don’t have to be like everyone else to be successful. Being an artist in Toronto takes so much strength, and knowing what she’s been through helps me to push myself further. I hope people leave the show feeling a bit stronger and ready to take on the world.”