Liza Minnelli At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto Friday
Let’s be honest: Liza Minnelli’s voice is shot.
As this stage of her career, her vocal cords are no longer capable of producing the warm, lustrous tone evident on her youthful recordings. What we get instead is throaty and dark, fleshed out by an occasionally wobbly vibrato and not a lot of air. Indeed, there were numerous times during her brief performance at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall when Minnelli seemed winded midway through a song. She regularly had to catch her breath during the between-songs patter.
Having said that, let’s be honest about something else: Her vocal frailties didn’t much matter.
Sure, if you were hoping to hear her turn on the power, you were going to be disappointed. With her six-piece band blaring, the show-opening Alexander’s Ragtime Band was more razzle than dazzle, and when she went for those big notes that launch the last verse of New York, New York, what came across was more like the 1977 blackout.
Even so, Minnelli managed to sell those songs despite her weakened technique. At 65, she understands enough about the gestural aspects of performance — the rhetoric of body movement and stance, the nuances of phrasing and emphasis — that she can make a song work even when her voice doesn’t.
It helps, of course, to have the right material. When handed something that functions as dramatic monologue, such as Charles Aznavour’s gay rights soliloquy What Makes a Man a Man, the notes become secondary to the story and her sense of character. There were times — My Own Best Friend, for instance, in which she reprised her role as Roxie Hart from 30 years ago in the musical Chicago — when Minnelli was so subsumed by the role that she disappeared into her protagonist, making it seem more like a theatre piece than a concert number.
But not everything on offer fit that model, particularly the big hits her fans expected. Cabaret, which had plenty of room to ham it up, worked well; But the World Goes ’Round, which stood on the strength of its arrangement, ended up being carried by the band. And while Minnelli is certainly entitled to keep singing Liza with a Z (despite her difficulties with articulation), does she honestly expect anyone to believe that there are still people in the world who call her Lisa?
Given that she was panting at the end of her opener, it wasn’t too surprising that Minnelli sang her last encore, a lovely a cappella rendering of I’ll Be Seeing You, a scant 80 minutes after the start of her show. Her fans didn’t seem to mind; by that point, they’d lavished her with five standing ovations, and seemed to relish the survivor aspect of her persona. (And to give an idea of how diverse the crowd was, the first bouquet she received was handed up by a Mohawked young man and his girlfriend.)
Minnelli’s performance was honest, heartfelt and endearingly courageous. One could ask for more, but it feels a bit greedy; the star power is still there, even if the voice isn’t, and her fans were overjoyed at what they got.