Liberace won't fly into the theater beating his enormously feathered cape-like wings. "No, I don't get a Peter Pan moment," says neophyte tribute artist Gary Beard. Beard has been Theatre Memphis' music director for years, but this month he's taking the spotlight and assuming the rhinestone-studded mantle of the effortlessly unhip performer who came to be known as Mr. Entertainment.
There's no patriotic baton twirling in Liberace!, Brent Hazelton's one-man musical biography chronicling the life of America's gaudiest piano player. "There aren't any hot pants either," Beard allows, while describing the glittery maestro's rise from humble Midwestern beginnings to become Las Vegas' most outrageous headliner. Władziu Valentino Liberace was also a TV pioneer, winking and smiling flirtatiously directly into a stationary camera while playing Chopin and serving up buckets of camp sentimentality. In the 1950s, his show was on more than 200 stations around the country. "He was bigger than I Love Lucy," Beard says.
Beard admits that flying solo can be intimidating. Even more so when you're playing piano in fistfulls of enormous rings and heavily decorated costumes that make 1970s-era Elvis look like a Brooks Brothers ad. Beard spends most of his time in orchestra pits these days. He's ventured far beyond his comfort zone for Liberace!.
"This has been the hardest thing I've ever done," he says.
There won't be a jewel-encrusted Rolls-Royce rolling on stage to drive this Liberace home, either. This isn't that kind of show. It's an intimate peek into the life of a complicated man in an astonishing wig. That doesn't mean there won't be some razzle-dazzle.
"Andre is having a good time," Beard says, name-checking Theatre Memphis' glitter-loving costume designer Andre Bruce Ward.
"Liberace!" at Theatre Memphis July 10th-26th. $30. theatrememphis.org