Curtis Labelle

Curtis Labelle

Pianist pays tribute to ‘Mr. Showmanship’

Pianist Curtis Labelle will be decked out in an elaborate wig, spangled tuxedo — and, quite possibly, a feathered cape — when he next visits his former hometown.

Pianist Curtis Labelle will be decked out in an elaborate wig, spangled tuxedo — and, quite possibly, a feathered cape — when he next visits his former hometown.

“You have no idea. It’s ridiculous-land!” said Labelle, of the flamboyant get-up he will wear when performing two Liberace shows on Saturday, Jan. 17, at the Welikoklad Event Centre in Red Deer.

Labelle’s stage tributes to the over-the-top American pianist, whose personal motto was “too much of a good thing is wonderful!” would no doubt have pleased his late mother, who was a Liberace fan.

Labelle was more a devotee of the comic pianist Victor Borge while growing up in Vernon, B.C., and later Red Deer.

Like most of the rest of the world, he found Liberace to be too much. “He was fake. His hair wasn’t real, he was plastic with all of his face-lifts, he was hiding his sexuality. …”

But Labelle, who became known for his own piano and composing talents while working with Ignition Theatre, CAT, Tree House Theatre and Red Deer College Theatre Studies, did credit the late pianist’s flair and remarkable keyboard skills. “He wasn’t called Mr. Showmanship for nothing.”

Labelle came up with the idea of a Liberace tribute after watching the acclaimed biopic Beneath the Candelabra on TV. He thought the stage show would be the perfect vehicle to reignite his own performing career, which has, for the past five years, taken a backseat to teaching at Visionary College music school in St. Albert.

Labelle describes the larger-than-life U.S. entertainer known as Lee as a charming musical show-off, who lived to please audiences. “His technique was phenomenal. He was one of the most amazing pianists going.”

The Wisconsin-born Władziu Valentino Liberace was the son of working class immigrants. He began playing the piano at age four and was considered a child prodigy. He honed his skills by playing in cabarets, but Liberace had enough classical chops as a 20-year-old to perform Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940.

Although his talents were often overshadowed by his flamboyance and his then-controversial (and much denied) same-sex orientation, Liberace’s career spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, a long-running TV show, motion pictures and endorsements.

At the height of his fame, from the 1950s to the ’70s, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world, with houses in Las Vegas and Palm Springs.

Liberace, who toured the globe and was recognized with two Emmy Awards, six gold albums and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was seemingly blessed with endless energy. He played 18 shows in 21 days at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1986 and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show before dying of AIDS-related causes in 1987 at the age of 67.

“I admired his tenacity and ability to just GO!” said Labelle.

“When he plays, he loves it and just wants to entertain. There’s this spark, and he’s carefree. … It’s like, ‘I’m just going to keep on playing and making everybody happy. …’”

The Alberta-based pianist actually got a year’s head start on Liberace by beginning piano lessons at age 3.

After years of private instruction, Labelle entered Red Deer College’s music program, but switched from piano to voice, then conducting, before quitting to perform in the Yukon.

“I’m more the kind of person who picks things up by doing,” he said — and who could turn down the chance to accompany can-can dancers at Diamond Toothed Gertie’s Gambling Hall (Canada’s first ever casino) in Dawson City?

Before leaving Red Deer five years ago, Labelle was an artistic force-about-town — from directing a vibrant production of Jacob and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat to performing cabaret numbers at Bull Skit shows, to composing for the original Ignition Theatre musical Year After Year, which was later turned into a local film.

Labelle said he misses “the energy of the people of Red Deer” and looks forward to seeing lots of old friends at the tribute show.

They can expect to hear an eclectic musical mix — including three songs performed by Edmonton area singer Jessy Mossop. The program also encompasses boogie-woogie and jazz tunes, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini, the theme to Chariots of Fire and, of course, many show tunes and even the Beer Barrel Polka.

Labelle will play them all with flourish — through three to four changes of extravagant custom-made costumes.

So does he find it daunting stepping into Liberace’s high-gloss shoes?

He pauses for a moment before deciding: No.

“I personally know I can do it. And people have been telling me they can’t think of a better person to be doing it. I’ve received so much support, I know I can do a good job.”

His Tribute to Liberace, presented by Mallard Theatre, will be performed in Red Deer, Drumheller and Edmonton before Labelle decides whether to take it further afield.

Tickets to the 2 and 7:30 p.m. shows are $35 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.