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Liberace show is no legend

Noel Coward probably had someone like Liberace in mind when one of the playwright's characters in Private Lives remarked on how potent cheap music is. Liberace was a gifted pianist and never failed to mention his highbrow credentials, but the joke was that he would play shlock like Moon River, I'll Be Seeing You and the Beer Barrel Polka as if they were Chopin etudes. Naturally, he was immensely popular.

Martin Preston stars in Liberace: The Legend Lives, an American Stage presentation at the Palladium Theater. Preston, playing a gaudy grand piano to the accompaniment of a bored-looking drummer and the synthesized din of a computer orchestra, manages to reverse Coward's aphorism, making a classic like Rhapsody in Blue sound cheap.

The show is mercifully brief, running 90 minutes without intermission, and its priorities are firmly in favor of Liberace's famous glitz. From time to time, William Garon, a boyish tenor, comes out to sing show tunes, allowing the pianist to make costume changes.

The costumes are outrageous. "You know what it is? Virgin fox," Preston says, showing off his white fur coat, draped over a spangled pink suit. "The whole thing weighs 35 pounds."

Another loud outfit was "made from one of Kate Smith's old beaded bags," he quips.

A show informed by "queer theory" sensibility actually could have had some fun with Liberace, whose campy sweetness made him a celebrity gay emissary to 1950s middle America. The pop culture lineage of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy leads right back to him.

Preston doesn't have that sort of wit. With his cornball silvery coif and mildly naughty patter, he settles for slavish mimicry.

You have to wonder why American Stage is presenting this. With its nostalgic My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, the company flirted with dinner theater fare. But a Liberace impersonator makes the Sinatra show look like Hamlet.