Bespangled Liza Minelli belts out a concert full of surprises

The stage is empty and dark when a small shadow that might be a stagehand slips out of the wings and strolls down toward the footlights. A hand reaches out and throttles a mike, the lights go up and reveal not a stagehand but a spangled Liza Minnelli. She lifts off with a wild version of ``Blue Skies'' as the band, playing loudly, wanders on stage after her. The audience at Kennedy Center gives her a standing ovation, drowning out the first few bars, then settles down to hear the rest of ``Blue Skies.'' It is braided together with Liza's version of ``I'm So Excited,'' which sounds like a meltdown of all three Pointer Sisters.

This Liza Minnelli now touring the United States in concert is full of surprises: The once dark cap of hair has given way to a teddy-bear haircut, honey-colored and slightly shaggy. The long legs in dark stockings, a trademark of both Liza and her mother Judy Garland, prance across the stage as she belts out the music. She wears a short chemise of lavender-and-blue-spangled sequins in an art nouveau pattern. She sings ``Stormy Weather,'' ``The Man I Love,'' and ``Sad Songs'' in that tremulous voice, her

wide eyes shadowy as moths with their exaggerated eyelashes.

Then she veers into a Cyndi Lauper-Madonna vein. Wearing a glitzy gold sequin chemise with pink Day-Glo sox and running shoes, she blasts out Lauper's ``Girls Just Want to Have Fun'' and Madonna's ``Material Girl.'' Those material girls and their style just aren't Liza, and the audience, which had been restive because the band was badly overmiked, suddenly rebels. There are yells of ``We didn't come here to hear the band'' and ``turn the band down,'' which unsettles her. ``Hush up, you-all . MDBR . .'' she shoots back.

At this point Liza is wringing wet from the hot stage lights and the Washington humidity. She unexpectedly grabs a towel, then wipes all the stage makeup from her face. She strips off her eyelashes, and winds up the first act singing bare-faced and vulnerable looking.

It is not part of the act, as she proves when she strolls in wearing a tuxedo after intermission to apologize. Nearly 200 people had reportedly walked out because of the mike problem -- a problem she had been unaware of until the audience started shouting.

During the second act the sound improved considerably. Liza, seated on a tall director's chair, draped one leg over the side and half sang, half confided some songs to the audience. She created an intimacy that suggested 2,000 people had just happened to turn up in her living room for a few songs. Liza brought back one of her mother's sweetest ``Meet Me In St. Louis'' numbers, ``Boys and Girls Like You and Me,'' then dished up ``I Love a Piano'' with some low, growly velvet notes the audience cheered. Switching to an Ethel Merman number as Rose, the vaudeville dragon mama from ``Gypsy,'' she turns in a performance that nearly out-Mermans Merman.

Liza Minnelli on stage seems to approach such songs like a jet taking off from a runway, gathering force and then lifting off with a burst of power, giving it all she's got. When she tackles a song like the crowd-pleaser ``Cabaret,'' her last number, all that supersonic giving leaves both Liza and the audience limp.

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