Liza just dances the decades away

Multi-award-winning performer comes to Meyerhoff for benefit

October 21, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Liza Minnelli is running off to dance class.

The singer-actress, in fact, is running late. But at 61, she rarely misses the daily, two-hour lessons.

"I've got two new hips. I got a wired-up knee. Oh, God!" she says with a throaty chuckle. Not only does she enjoy dancing, but the rigorous steps keep her in shape. "The key is to keep moving."

In recent years, Minnelli has been sidetracked temporarily by well-publicized trips to rehab and a contentious divorce from concert promoter David Gest. But the entertainer - one of few who own Oscar, Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe awards - still savors the joy of performing. On Saturday, Oct. 27, she'll headline a benefit for the Chimes School at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

"It's so much fun to dance around and sing on stage. I'm doing more dancing now than I did in Liza with a Z," Minnelli says, referring to her award-winning 1972 TV special. "That has never changed for me."

Some things about her performance are changing: Bill LaVorgna, her musical director of more than three decades, died of a heart attack in July at age 74. Minnelli's Web site offers a tribute to the former resident of Princess Anne, Md., who was to lead the band during Saturday's performance.

Minnelli also is working on a multimedia tribute to her godmother, Kay Thompson, the famously hyperactive vocal arranger for MGM Studios and author of the 1950s Eloise children's books.

In fact, Minnelli was the inspiration behind the tales of a precocious 6-year-old living in the Plaza Hotel.

In The Godmother and the Goddaughter stage show, the artist re-creates parts of Thompson's nightclub act from the '40s and '50s. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan - who helped bring a restored Liza with a Z to Showtime last year - are producing a Showtime TV special of the touring performance, to be taped this winter in New York. A corresponding CD is scheduled for release next year.

"There's a lot of dancing and humor," Minnelli says. "I'm celebrating my godmother, who was such a great influence on me and a lot of people. She changed the way so many people do music. I don't think people realize how influential she was in vocal arrangements. She was a wonderful gift my parents gave me."

The daughter of legendary singer-actress Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli remembers seeing Thompson's act at a very young age.

"I was 2, really!" says the singer, who sounds as if she's on stage while talking on the phone from New York. "All I remember is her feet flying all over the place."

A year after that, Minnelli made her film debut during the final scene of In the Good Old Summertime, a 1949 musical starring her mother and Van Johnson. Her life has been conducted in a media fishbowl practically since her birth.

"I grew up in the spotlight," Minnelli says. "So for me, everybody's parents were famous. I don't think I know of any other life. I was kinda bred for this, you know."

As a teenager with two younger siblings, Minnelli often had to take responsibility for her mother, whose substance abuse and erratic behavior were as legendary as her devastating vocal style. But Minnelli kept moving: At 19, she won a Tony for Flora the Red Menace. (She went on to win two more.)

She garnered an Oscar nomination for 1969's The Sterile Cuckoo. But the star cemented her legend and picked up an Academy Award for her role as Sally Bowles in 1972's Cabaret. Minnelli also molded her image - the ink-black helmet hair and mile-long lashes - from the movie.

But there has been as much struggle as success: Over the years, Minnelli has been in and out of rehab for substance abuse. In 2000, she nearly died from a bout of viral encephalitis. She has had two hip replacements as well as surgery on her knee and vocal cords. Four marriages ended in divorce. Minnelli says she's not planning another trip down the aisle. Ever.

"Will I get married again?" Minnelli asks in mock terror. "Are you nuts? I learned my lesson. I love my life. I have wonderful friends - and most are not in show business. No more marriage. No, sir."

But she'll sing and dance for as long as she can.

"The dichotomy is that I ... draw people, and I never had a hit record," Minnelli says. "I'm home for, like, 10 days. Then I'm out on the road. I like it. I have to because I've been doing this for so long. Singing, dancing - it's in the blood. Oh, that reminds me. I have dance class. Gotta go."

ON STAGE Liza Minnelli - Chimes Hall of Fame / / 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. $50-$75. / / 410-547-7328 or

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