Music review: Liza Minnelli, Royal Festival Hall, London

The consummate showbiz pro's return to the South Bank after 40 years is surprisingly Cabaret-lite
  • @SimonOHagan

The celebration of 20th-century music that is The Rest Is Noise festival on London's South Bank has its forbidding aspect, so it was an inspired idea to incorporate Liza Minnelli into it. And if it was also a little contrived, I doubt any member of a packed, adoring Royal Festival Hall minded.

Billed as focussing on the Weimar era, the show was in fact quite Cabaret-lite. Minnelli sang the title song and "Maybe This Time", plus a number that was in the 1966 original stage show but not the 1972 film that made Minnelli famous, "So What". Minnelli, it seems, does not want to be defined by that one dazzling performance.

Appearing at the RFH for the first time since 1973, Minnelli is still in amazingly good voice. It's acquired a gravelliness over the years, and at times it was more breath than sound, but then she would regain her power, and she hit every note. With an immaculate nine-piece band, she was the consummate showbiz pro, respecting her audience, giving her all, every little aside and gesture, it seemed, the honed product of a lifetime of devotion to her art.

At 66, her age showed more physically than vocally. She moved somewhat gingerly. She hoisted herself in and out of an elevated director's chair, and squinted out at us like a great aunt appraising her extended family. But the Sally Bowles persona still clung to her.

In songs like "He's Funny That Way" and "You've Let Yourself Go", Minnelli offered messages of hope and consolation to the lovelorn, the vulnerable, to anyone down on themselves. Charles Aznavour’s blistering, brave, way-ahead-of-its-time 1962 song of sexual identity, “What Makes A Man A Man”, was Minnelli at her most “be yourself” passionate. She would climax songs by striking the classic pose of one arm thrust aloft, head thrown back, her figure picked out by a single spotlight.

Pianist Billy Stritch was her constant companion, duetting with her on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and giving Minnelli the opportunity for a little rest, and himself the opportunity to show off his lovely light tenor voice, with a solo number "No Moon At All".

There was a standing ovation when Minnelli stepped on to the stage at the start of the show. An hour and a half later, there had been several more. A legend but not a diva, Minnelli earned every one.