"Cabaret," the title number from Liza Minnelli's greatest screen musical, is a fight song as much as a showstopper. Midway through its celebration of a carefree life, the lyrics describe a girlfriend of the narrator who died of "too much pills and liquor," but who looked content laid out in her coffin. "I made my mind up back in Chelsea," the narrator resolves at the end of the bridge, "when I go, I'm going like Elsie."
It's a defiant tune, and sometimes it shows up in settings that render its message of against-the-odds cheer even more poignant. Consider the end of the movie "Cabaret": After Minnelli finishes singing the song in a German nightclub circa 1932, the camera pans around to see the audience dotted with Nazis. Life, the shot chillingly indicates, may not be a cabaret much longer.
No brownshirts crowded the Segerstrom Center for the Arts when Minnelli sang "Cabaret" there Thursday night, but she found herself up against an oppressor of a different kind. The singer, who shared the bill with the Orange County gay men's chorus MenAlive, wasn't in prime condition to perform, as she admitted more than once during the show. The 66-year-old Minnelli sounded out of breath at times and told the audience she had a cold, which manifested itself in occasional coughing fits and glasses of water.
When Minnelli got to the line in "Cabaret" about the pills and liquor, she even appeared to make reference to her own hard-lived past, as the song stopped completely for an instant and Minnelli froze with a sheepish look on her face. But in face of that knowledge, and with her voice sometimes groping for steady ground, "Cabaret" sounded more triumphant than ever: Life, for everything it may have thrown at Minnelli, was still a cabaret, and she wasn't a happy corpse just yet.
For that matter, she had an audience eager to party with her. Nearly every song Minnelli sang in the last half of her set drew a standing ovation, and some audience members treated her more like an old friend than an icon, interspersing comments between her songs. The performer was clearly used to that; when a woman a few rows back shouted that she had seen her in "Chicago" years ago, Minnelli engaged in a brief conversation with her about when the performance took place.
Whatever her technical limitations, Minnelli more than lived up to her vibrant image at the Segerstrom Center. Her set played like a greatest-hits retrospective, touching on Broadway, Christmas tunes and even her quasi-theme song from the early 1970s, "Say Liza (Liza With a "Z")," which gives the listener a crash course in how to spell her name ("It's Liza with a 'Z' / not Lisa with an 'S' / 'cause Lisa with an 'S' / goes sss not zzz...").
Minnelli, of course, is an actor as well as a singer (she won the Best Actress Oscar for "Cabaret" in 1972), and she summoned those chops in "My Own Best Friend" from "Chicago," reciting both sides of a jailhouse dialogue scene between protagonist Roxie Hart and her lawyer before segueing into the lyrics. Her most moving performance of the night came on "What Makes a Man a Man?" a story-song about a gay dancer written by her mentor, Charles Aznavour; Minnelli dropped her voice to a spectral whisper in places, half singing and half speaking as she related the narrator's private world of anxiety.
"Isn't that a swell song?" Minnelli asked when it ended. Throughout the show, she often raved about her material and, for that matter, her backup players; after just one song, she called MenAlive "the happiest group of people I ever played with."
Before a long drumroll announced Minnelli early in the second act, the chorus held center stage. The sound mix posed problems at times — the drums and horns, on the uptempo numbers, overpowered many of the lyrics — but the a capella renditions of "Carol of the Bells" and the Welsh carol "All Through the Night" were genuinely lovely, and spirited lead vocals by Matt Jankowski, Mark Clark and Michael L. Quintos made "Brotherhood of Man," from the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," a highlight.
The chorus backed Minnelli on occasion during her set, but mostly stood in the back looking like another adoring crowd — albeit a quieter one than the audience, whose cries of "I love you, Liza!" became so prevalent that they might as well have been credited as backing vocals in the show's official program.
What shone through more than anything at the Segerstrom Center on Thursday was that Minnelli's fans love her and she loves them back, to the point where even a little throat congestion couldn't dampen that spirit. By the time the last note sounded on the final number — "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which Minnelli touchingly dedicated to her mother, Judy Garland — the star had more than earned her applause and her Vitamin C.