Lee Squared: An Evening With Liberace and Miss Peggy Lee

by Michael Barbieri
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Imagine, if you will, that two renowned gay icons - the ultra-hip Miss Peggy Lee, and the ferociously flamboyant Liberace, have never actually left our earthly plane, and are still hitting the clubs, performing for their adoring public.  Well, imagine no more!

At The Metropolitan Room, on West 22nd Street, you can see them both in Lee Squared: An Evening With Liberace and Miss Peggy Lee.  In this loving and very funny tribute show, David Maiocco appears as Liberace, known to the world as Mr. Showmanship, but to his friends as Lee.  With him, is the incomparable Chuck Sweeney as legendary platinum-haired jazz goddess, Peggy Lee.

Maiocco, a MAC and Bistro Award winning musical director and pianist, has played for some of the most legendary “ladies” of stage and screen - Tommy Femia as Judy Garland, James Beaman as Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, Richard Skipper as Carol Channing, Steven Brinberg’s Simply Barbra, and of course, Chuck Sweeney as Miss Peggy Lee.  Additionally, he’s accompanied artists like Ben Vereen, Karen Mason, Christine Pedi, John Barrowman and others, in cabarets and in concert.

As Miss Lee, Chuck Sweeney has performed in some of the most well known cabarets and theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the Waldorf Astoria Grand Ballroom, Madison Square Garden, The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, and the Madeira Room in Provincetown.  He was a featured Guest Star and Host(ess) of the “Just For Laughs” Montreal Comedy Festival Queer Comics Night, and is the recipient of the Backstage Bistro Award and two-time winner of the MAC Award for Outstanding Impersonation.

As Lee Squared, the pair are a camp delight!

The show begins appropriately, with a grand entrance, as Maiocco’s Liberace takes the stage to the orchestral sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1.  Dressed in a black tailcoat with silver spangled lapels, a frilly cravat, and white ruffled cuffs, he positions himself at the piano - flickering candelabra completing the picture - and plays the grandiose opening chords, which soon become a tinkling, music box-like variation on the theme.  After greeting the audience, he gives us a jaunty “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Bumble Boogie” - a version of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” set to boogie-woogie rhythm.  

From the moment he enters, Maiocco captures Liberace perfectly - his glittering costumes, his famously “wavy hair,” his slightly nasal voice, his sly smile and sideways glances at the audience, and of course, the over the top flourishes and sparkling runs on the piano.  All that’s missing are the Dancing Waters!

Taking center stage for a moment, and using, of course, a rhinestone encrusted microphone, he introduces his special guest star, Miss Peggy Lee.

Now, while Maiocco’s performance as Liberace is often eerily accurate, Chuck Sweeney’s Peg is an affectionately comedic parody of the great lady - a bit dippy, with that breathy, almost monotonous speech pattern, the white Cleopatra wig, and those infamous dark glasses - so dark, she manages to lose her way to the stage upon her entrance!  

Decked out in black sequins and purple feathered sleeves, Sweeney gives us one of Peg’s own compositions, “It’s A Good Day,” and one of her signature tunes, Leiber & Stoller’s “I’m a W-O-M-A-N,” with a few hilariously misplaced lyrics.

In one of the show’s memorable moments, while Sweeney leaves the stage, Maiocco takes a solo spot, playing Liberace’s Mack the Knife Variations, where the iconic Weill song is done in varying styles - as a Strauss waltz or a Mozart sonata, for instance.  Again, his reproduction of Liberace’s uniquely embellished sound is remarkable, and the song seems fresh and new.

When Peg returns in a glittering new ensemble, Liberace asks if he can “slip out and get into something more spectacular.” This leaves her alone to recall the time she met the Dalai Lama - I knew the story already, and had to hold back my laughter so I wouldn’t telegraph the joke!  We’re also treated to the awkwardly funny sight of watching her clamber atop the piano to give us Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” and of course, there’s her jokey, deadpan rendition of “Fever,” the song for which Peggy Lee is best known.

Liberace re-enters, resplendent in a silver lamé suit and full length silver sequined cape, which matches Peg’s outfit, bling for bling!  They reminisce about the pianist’s lavish holiday parties, giving Sweeney a showcase for some of his other vocal impressions.  But pretty soon, “The Party’s Over,” and Maiocco treats us to a gorgeous Chopin Nocturne, with the stage bathed in blue light.

Two bravura pieces follow - Liberace’s Boogie Woogie, a piece he made famous in concert, in which he plays a standard boogie, done 8 to the bar.  The audience gets to participate, when during a brief pause in the music, they all shout “HEY!”  Thrillingly, the piece ends with Maiocco doubling the pace, as Liberace did, to a shockingly fast 16 to the bar, leaving no doubt as to his exceptional skills as a musician!  Peg then gives us her ultimate party number, “Is That All There Is?” from the album Mirrors.

The fabulously silly finale has the stars upset that the press has dubbed them “old and out of touch,” so to prove they’re not behind the times, they perform a medley of current pop hits!  Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve witnessed Liberace and Peggy Lee rapping away at “Whip/Nae Nae” and doin’ the stanky leg!

The pair closes out the show with a couple of lovely, quiet encores - “Sing A Rainbow,” which seemed to me a gentle shout-out to the gay community, and the sentimental “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with the stars joining in simple, beautiful harmony.

A good cabaret show can do many things: entertain, enlighten, amuse.  Lee Squared gives us a window into a time gone by.  We get to experience Miss Peggy Lee’s cool style, albeit filtered through a comedic lens.  We get a glimpse into Liberace’s excessive stage persona - the man who said “Too much of a good thing...is WONDERFUL!”  We get to hear jazz and pop classics, and classical masterpieces played by a master...or at least an excellent facsimile!  We get to laugh.  We might even get a little misty-eyed.  But most of all, we get to remember.  For those of us old enough to have seen the real Liberace and Lee, the show is a fun, sequin-spangled walk down memory lane.  For the younger generation, who may not be as familiar with them, well, Lee Squared would be a fabulous primer!  

Liberace would’ve loved it, and Peg would be proud!

Lee Squared plays the Metropolitan Room again on Friday, February 17th, at 9:30 pm.  Tickets available at www.metropolitanroom.com or reserve by phone at 212-206-0440

Michael Barbieri

Food & Entertainment Writer