With a ‘Z,’ Without a Net

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The career has been as fractious a roller-coaster ride—highlighted by heights and dips, punctuated by applause and thrills, accented by nerves and screams—as the life. Her critics and fans alike still have trouble pronouncing “Liza,” and the press still can’t spell “Minnelli.” But it’s written in stone: The one-word mention of her name will always have its own instant, built-in recognition factor. And the best of it all (a compilation of all highs and no lows) is captured in Liza with a “Z,” the historic 1972 NBC television special directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, written by Fred Ebb, broadcast three times and—despite winning four Emmys—not seen for 33 years.

Get ready. It’s back, digitally remastered, fluffed and slick’um’d up in Dolby sound, premiering April 1 on Showtime, with a DVD following three days later. At 60, Liza may have another race in her before the bone yard. But at 26, in red Halston sequins and singing in stereo, she was already a Derby winner.

Filmed with eight cameras on a Broadway stage before a “live” audience, Liza with a “Z” was the first filmed concert for network TV. From the downbeat, the air is charged with a breathless electricity rare even by Broadway standards, and Judy’s little girl provides the kilowatts. Fresh from their Oscar-winning Cabaret, the Fosse, Minnelli, Kander and Ebb collaboration was in full throttle in 1972, and Liza’s myriad illnesses, surgeries and addictions (enough to render most performers catatonic) had not yet surfaced in tabloid headlines. Sparkling and shimmering, her Punchinello body looking a few potato sacks lighter than it is today, her chops soaring with power and strength, she is splendid and larky and nervous and overwhelming all at the same time, and there isn’t a wasted minute in one hour of solid entertainment.

From her show-stopping signature requests, like the title song and “Ring Them Bells,” to a heartbreaking, beautifully acted rendition of Charles Aznavour’s “You’ve Let Yourself Go,” the repertoire is eclectic, funny, touching and, at least once (in a tribute to Billie Holiday on “God Bless the Child”), blue as a jazz saxophone. The highlight, of course, is the lengthy Cabaret medley, which doesn’t seem lengthy at all. In the past 34 years, she has sung these songs so many times that she often seems more Sally Bubbles than Sally Bowles, but they are fresh as sprigs of spring mint here. Sally is a foolproof role, and you’d have to be pretty mediocre not to shine in it, but Liza brings it to life with added personal vulnerability and huggable wistfulness that have often been obscured in other, flashier interpretations of the role. Her Sally was like a cross between a Berlin chanteuse in an Emil Jannings movie and a giddy, teenage Kay Francis.

All of these elements have been coordinated with panache by Bob Fosse, riveting attention to small points of interest as well as big ones. He knew in his marrow that from her own genes, she inherited her mother’s razor-sharp wit and indestructible talent, her father’s impeccable sense of style and what her godmother, Kay Thompson, always called “bazazz,” not to mention what Joan Collins defined as Liza’s ultimate tool for show-business survival (“Balls of brass, darling, balls of brass!”). Somewhere between these attributes and the stage that reflects them, Fosse established an interplay that broadened the horizons of the one-woman show in a profound, adult way, taking its rightful place in television history and enriching our experience as nothing ever does on the idiot box anymore.

So sound the trumpets. It’s another planet, place, era and girl, but Liza with a “Z” strikes gold again in bankrupt times. It’s Artistry with an “A.”

All’s Swell

I can think of no better way to usher in the badly needed first embrace of spring than a splash of Cole Porter, and Kt Sullivan and Mark Nadler have both faucets wide open. In their delightful new cabaret act at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, they’ve got the subject well covered. They call it “A Swell Party!” and you’ve still got until April 1 to RSVP.

One thing this show does is remind us what a devil Mr. Porter was. The lyrics are often quite naughty (“Let’s Do It” never sounded so double-entendre). When the mischievous pianist-singer-arranger-comic Mark Nadler tackles them, every line is a punch line. Then he does an about face and sings “You’ve Got That Thing” in a slow, sensual and suggestive tempo that is almost lascivious. Versatility is the key. KT Sullivan, usually a bubbly cross between Lillian Russell and Lorelei Lee, manages, in this outing, to blend the emotional content of “So in Love” with the arc of theme and melody on “Get Out of Town,” giving happiness new meaning.

Some other subtle changes in their patter, delivery and timing pay handsome dividends: Though never less than entertaining, they have in past performances sometimes been verbose and overly descriptive with the biographical material, talking at the same time like the maddening sound track from a Robert Altman movie. This time, they wisely dissolve the segues between songs and dispense with the unnecessary details of Cole Porter’s life. It’s the songs that count. Without sacrificing an iota of subtlety or imagination, less chatter leaves more time for music, and there is plenty of it, with the excellent bass player John Loehrke and the dreamy saxophone of Loren Schoenberg lending vibrant support.

From the insatiable lusts of “Kate the Great” to a Paris medley with “After You, Who?” in French, this duo is out to dazzle. She has joie de vivre; he has verve and sheen. I like the antic Danny Kaye side of Mr. Nadler, but when he explores the minor keys of songs like “I Love Paris,” or idealistically feels his way through an obscure Porter masterpiece like “Wake Up and Dream,” the softer, warmer side of his voice becomes a most appealing counterpart to his usual antics.

What a swellegant, elegant party this is, and KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler are the perfect hosts. They may end the show with “Just One of Those Things,” but don’t believe it. You’re in for much, much more.

Ballroom Bliss

At the movies, there isn’t much to write home about, but compared with the violence and filth of today’s Hollywood action epics and the creeping deadliness of all the independent productions that look like they were made for $100, a sweet, unpretentious and heartfelt little movie like Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School begins to look like a wayward valentine from the dead-letter office, lost in transit and delivered late.

A despondent and recently widowed bread baker named Frank Keane (played by the sometimes unintelligible Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, thankfully exchanging his thick brogue for a more decipherable Irish accent) is driving down a California highway when he finds a man seriously injured in a car accident. Although the injured driver (John Goodman) is near death, 911 tells Frank to keep him conscious and talking until the paramedics arrive. An extraordinary story unfolds when the stranger reveals that he’s on his way to fulfill a promise made 40 years earlier to meet his childhood sweetheart at the Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, where they first met as kids—and that he’s broken out of prison to do it.

Frank keeps his appointment but never dreams that when he enters the old social club in Pasadena, his own fate will take a remarkable right turn. The original Marilyn passed on in 1972. But her dance classes are still conducted by her grown daughter (Mary Steenburgen), and they have such an unexpectedly liberating effect on the shy, inarticulate Frank that even the miserable members of his group-therapy sessions for grieving widowed husbands move to the ballroom, and the Thursday-night lindy hops and tangos become metaphors for exorcising demons and opening up new doors to hope and affirmation.

Directed by Randall Miller and co-written by Mr. Miller and Jody Savin, the movie is similar in theme to Shall We Dance? But unlike that film, it doesn’t narrow its focus to what happens inside the classroom. The story is complex, involving a variety of characters at different ages in their lives, so the structure understandably has a hopscotch effect, with three different looks: The past has a historic sepia-tone quality, the California-freeway scenes between Mr. Carlyle and the dying Mr. Goodman have the bleached and antiseptic hue of an ambulance interior, and the ballroom scenes that grow from awkwardness to passion are rich and colorful.

The performances are whimsical and touching, with solid and human portraits etched by Marisa Tomei, Donnie Wahlberg, Sean Astin, Sonia Braga, David Paymer, Adam Arkin, Camryn Manheim and Danny DeVito, among others. Today’s movies are so bad that when respected performers with established reputations find a script they believe in, they work for next to nothing. By the end of this film, every life has been changed or impacted in positive ways (some more whimsical and less believable than others) through the group experience of ballroom dancing. The point of the film is that anything is possible when you open your heart to new experiences. Simplistic, for sure. Simple-minded, maybe. But the feel-good pleasures in a movie with this much positive thinking are undeniable.


No such luck awaits the victims of Brick, a two-bit indie-prod that gives new meaning to the four most dreaded words in cinema: “Big Hit at Sundance!” It should have been burned there, instead of winning a jury prize for “originality of vision.” It sends the new genre of cut-rate filmmaking with video cams to the garbage dump. Typed on a keyboard in cyberspace and directed with mind-bending incompetence by somebody named Rian Johnson, Brick transfers the film noir ambience of old Humphrey Bogart flicks to new depths of teenage dopiness. Even its claim to be a murder mystery solved by kids is nothing original. (Dean Stockwell, Peggy Ann Garner and Connie Marshall did it so much better in Home, Sweet Homicide in 1946.)

This one’s got slackers, dopers and cretinous teen skanks just waiting for a felony to happen. There’s an invisible plot about a gang of high-school heroin pushers run by The Pin, a killer with a clubfoot whose mother serves him cookies and apple juice between murder sprees. Leading a cast of unknowns in the role of the just-learning-to-shave-but-doesn’t-own-a-razor “detective,” there’s an unbearable performance by a zombie named Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who acts with a permanent scowl, shoulders hunched and angry fists dug deep into the pockets of his Wal-Mart windbreaker. The unspeakable dialogue is so incomprehensible it seems like a whole new language. The title refers to a brick of heroin cut with laundry detergent. The moans you hear are from Dashiell Hammett, turning over in his grave.

With a ‘Z,’ Without a Net