Fort Worth — Anyone who has been going to Dallas theater for, oh, any time at all in the past 40-some-odd years, doesn't need an introduction to B.J. Cleveland. He's been a dominant presence here since he was a child actor in the 1970s. If you were a kid in that era, you might remember him as the host of the school-day, afternoon cartoon line-up on a local TV station as BJ and Lester, who was a dog puppet.
A Fort Worth native, he grew up on the stage at Casa Mañana, was artistic director of Theatre Arlington through the 2000s, and has lately been most active at Uptown Players, where he directs and performs.
In recent years, he's become known for his impersonation of one of his idols, Liza Minnelli. So it make sense that he's teaming up with actress Janelle Lutz, who has become equally well known for her portrayal of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow and The Boy from Oz at Uptown, in a cabaret that will be performed three times this week at Casa Mañana's new Reid Cabaret Theatre.
Cleveland and Lutz are also prepping for the holiday show A Very Judy Christmas at Uptown Players in December, so get ready for An Evening with Judy and Liza at Casa. TheaterJones had an e-chat with Cleveland about the cabaret and playing Liza.
TheaterJones: How did you and Janelle come up with this concept? Obviously, she has played Judy several times, and you've played Liza.
B.J. Cleveland: Casa Executive Producer Wally Jones heard through the Grapevine that I did "LIZA' and asked me at intermission of the Buckley Awards if he could book me into the new Reid Cabaret. I laughed at the thought and said "Well, I don't have a Liza "show" per se, but I do some numbers, how about if I add gal pal Janelle Lutz, who's performed Judy Garland in several productions across the country, and we make it a full night?" So, THAT"S how fast it happened. We booked it and then I told Janelle!
Ha! Is there dialogue? Improv? A narrative about the mother/daughter relationship?
We are each doing a set, half hour of Liza, half hour of Judy and then we come together for a few duets to end the evening. Just like the Vegas two-headers. We banter and tweaked a few lyrics to poke fun at one another—but not going into any family hardship stories. It's all light and fun with a few popular ballads thrown in. We're literally putting this together just for Casa.
How do you approach impersonating Liza? Vocal tics and facial expressions? Details please.
Ha! Well, I did "Liza" as a joke at a party once; then was asked to be a "guest celebrity presenter" at a local theater awards show. Then as I stayed with Uptown Players through the years, she made an appearance in one of the Broadway Our Way [events], the annual Broadway revue fundraising show. That went over big, so she appears about every couple of years and has since hosted two Christmas specials with the Turtle Creek Chorale at Moody Performance Hall. I say "she" because SHE takes over. Like what happened to Linda Blair in The Exorcist...but I got LIZA!
I am definitely a caricature of Liza with a loving nod to her sweetness and vivaciousness. Note; I am an actor PLAYING Liza Minnelli as her current self, not a female impersonator lip-syncing to a young Liza from ’72 Cabaret. Liza has developed a little bit of a lateral lisp and stays breathy and passionate when she speaks, my jaw hurts when I'm done!
Can you go too far with an impersonation? You still want to make the character "human," right?
I've gone Full-Crazy Liza, but this is real, passionate, loving, and upbeat Liza, who really relates and just loves being loved by her fans. I love Liza's tenacity, kookiness, self-effacing humor, and sheer long-lasting chutzpah to hang on as a beloved Musical Theater Icon. It's a loving-nod portrayal.
You are putting together the A Very Judy Christmas show for Uptown, in which Janelle stars. How does that factor into this?
Janelle was available BECAUSE we start rehearsal the week after the cabaret. And we've known about A Very Judy Christmas Special for over a year now. This cabaret show will be a good warm up for us for a longer run, even though the Uptown Players show at the Kalita Humphreys Theater will be more of a holiday special with seasonal songs and a few iconic songs thrown in.
You grew up performing at Casa, and have recently directed at the Children's Playhouse and performed in the mainstage musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Will it always be a home for you?
The building has changed but it still feels like Home. I literally grew up on that stage, from a child star (Ruta Lee was like a beloved Aunt to me), to featured roles in the summer musicals as a young adult, to a teacher and resident company member for several years, and then I came back to direct the first full Casa-produced show in the new space, The Hobbit, and then ZAP—[more than a decade] went by and I'm back doing Superstar and in my old dressing room that I practically lived in. Some of my best theater and childhood memories are in that building—and over 50 productions there.
Do you have a favorite story about Judy and Liza as mother/daughter?
The awkwardness of their relationship onstage and off is fascinating to me. Even after Liza became a name unto herself, Judy still prompts her and messes with her like a stage mother and legendary actress, coaxing her with the mic and sometimes bullying her a little onstage. But there is a great love story there of a woman who idolized her mother and made a name for herself in spite of her show business heritage and forgave her Mother for a life ill-led.
Anything else to add?
Life IS a Cabaret, old chum. Right this way, you're table's waiting!