Lending their star power to Broadway, Liza Minnelli, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Lauren Bacall are by now beyond criticism

By Jess Cagle
Updated January 07, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

In a flagrant dismissal of Entertainment Weekly policy, there will be no grades given at the end of this review. There’s good reason for that, since this review will focus on three divas who, gosh darn it, have earned the right not to be graded by a snot-nosed critic like myself.

They are, in order of appearance, Liza Minnelli, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Lauren Bacall. Among the three of them, they have a total of 345 years in show business (that’s an estimate). Each diva has seen her share of good times and bum times, each is miraculously still here, and each is now appearing on a Broadway stage.

Correction: Liza probably won’t be appearing on a stage by the time you read this, since the limited run of her show, Minnelli on Minnelli, is scheduled to end soon after this magazine hits newsstands. Which is too bad, because even if Minnelli on Minnelli isn’t great theater, it is great pep rally. Liza is our favorite kind of diva—the blazingly talented kind who spends inordinate amounts of time in hospitals (hip replacements, vocal problems, and must we go into the rest of it?). We root for her. Every note is a triumph, every step a victory.

On stage, she joked about the show’s bad reviews (as if something so piddling as The New York Times could get her down), and she literally sang the praises of her father, director Vincente Minnelli, whose movies (Brigadoon, Meet Me in St. Louis, Gigi) provided the songs. When she forgot the words to ”The Trolley Song” during a duet with a videotape of her mother, Judy Garland, Liza just laughed it off. And why not? So many of the guys in the audience knew all the words to ”The Trolley Song” anyway, and thousands cheered.

And while we’re cheering, let’s give a big one to Kathie Lee Gifford. Until late February, she’s appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together—but just on Tuesday nights (as a substitute for the show’s star, the excellent Carol Burnett) because, heaven knows, Kathie Lee is busy with other things. There’s the morning show, charity endeavors, album recordings, mothering, and the clothing line. Incidentally, I think that sweatshop thing wasn’t her fault. So let’s give her a break.

People associated with the show have noted what a pleasure Kathie Lee has been to work with. She’s also a pleasure to watch. Although Putting It Together is merely a revue of Sondheim tunes (and the 1993 Off Broadway production with Julie Andrews was staged more smoothly), its characters are cleverly fleshed out, by way of their songs, as distinct types. Kathie Lee conveys a wealth of anger and humor as a woman burdened with a privileged but lonely existence. She bites into ”Not Getting Married Today” and takes a bitterly touching turn on ”The Ladies Who Lunch.” Whether you see Putting It Together with Burnett or Gifford, you’ll love hearing costar Ruthie Henshall’s numbers from the movie Dick Tracy and John Barrowman’s magnificently melodic ”Marry Me a Little.”

You’ll be glad to know that our third diva is not appearing in a musical. Lauren Bacall is no great singer, though she won Tonys for two musicals (1970’s Applause and 1981’s Woman of the Year). She’s also no great actress, although she’s been working steadily on stage and screen since God was a boy (or at least since the early 1940s). What she is is a Star. She is such a Star, in fact, that while Waiting in the Wings — Noel Coward’s still-sorta-funny 1960 play set in a retired actresses’ home — features more than a dozen gemlike performances by veteran stage actresses (most notably Rosemary Harris), all eyes are drawn to Bacall. At 75, she’s got the devil in her. She beats you into submission with her considerable presence, and presence, after all, is crucial. It can’t be defined, can hardly be reviewed, and certainly can’t be graded. It’s much like pornography: You know it when you see it. Loosen up, and you’ll be glad you did.