Saturday, 20 May 2017

Review Judy!

A trio of singing marvels thrills Tim Gopsill in a musical bio-play about one of the twentieth century's most enduring Hollywood icons.

by Ray Rackham 

Triple Threat 

There’s a glaring problem that plagues the producers of all shows telling the life story of a great theatrical artiste: who is up to playing the lead role? All those good enough would have to be stars themselves.

When the star is a singer with a mighty voice that stunned generations, it is even harder; but when you have found your singer, she or he has got to act the part as well; and when the star carries a perplexing reputation combining big-hearted generosity, overbearing autocracy and tragic vulnerability, it becomes harder still.

On top of all these, you want to portray the artist’s whole life, and the great Judy Garland already took to the stage as a 12 year old girl. 

At least there's a clear solution to the final problem: you use different performers to play different periods of the star’s life.

In the case of Judy!, writer/director Ray Rackham’s amazing musical bio-play that has just transferred to the Arts Theatre, this solves the other problems too.

Three actors play the part; all can sing – and dance – and have been with the show since it opened at the London Theatre Workshop in Fulham. This was two years ago before a run at Southwark Playhouse.

It's currently at the Arts Theatre, a stone's throw from the former Talk Of The Town -  now the Hippodrome -  where Garland sang her penultimate concert

There is the cocky but tender young girl, born Frances Gumm played by Lucy Penrose, who dreams up her glorious stage name for herself; the neurotic singer - Belinda Wollaston - in her late twenties at the top of her game, launching her unsurpassed 19-week solo run at New York’s Palace Theatre.

Then middle aged Judy played by Helen Sheals, doped up with booze and pharmaceuticals, going down with the ship of her failing weekly TV talk show; always still a grand dame – “I’m a fucking legend,” she yells at CBS executive Hunt Stromberg – she's much too grand to bend to the intimate demands of the small screen.

There is a notable precedent for this way of dramatizing a stage life in Ray Cooney’s triumphant musical Elvis, which had a West End run 40 years ago before a national tour and then being revived in the 1990s. But that had rock 'n roll stars in the two senior of the three roles, Shakin’ Stevens and PJ Proby.

Elvis’s life – somewhat tame to my mind compared with Garland’s -- was told chronologically. However  Rackham’s structural trick, lifting Judy! above the level of a tribute show or run-of-the-mill jukebox musical to that of a serious play in its own right, is to blend the three different eras of life together. The narratives are introduced in reverse order but play continuously, mingling with each other. 

At times the Judys sing together – as when Wollaston's Palace Judy joins in with Penrose's youthful performer singing her first audition number, Jimmy F Hanley's Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.

With the Arts Theatre being a relatively small house, there are no microphones; the natural singing therefore has an affecting nature rarely achieved with banks of speakers in big-theatre musicals. 

But Wollaston could probably sing unmiked in Drury Lane: she belts out Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody (music by Jean Schartz, lyrics by Sam M Lewis and Joe Young)  with some of the ferocity of Garland herself. 

All the music is acoustic. The ensemble has seven of the cast playing instruments on stage: three of them, Joe Shefer as Judy’s father Frank, Christopher Dickens as Stromberg and Tom Elliot Reade as fellow producer Roger Edens, are pianists.

Reade also plays violin. He and Chris McGuigan, playing Norman Jewison, a later triple Oscar nnominee, who survived one week as director of the Judy Garland Show, play reeds.

Don Cotter plays the legendary tycoon Louis B Mayer and the onstage drums and Carmella Brown doubles as both Judy’s devoted dresser Judith Kramer, and flautist in the band.

It may be true that the wonderful music does have the predictable downside that dialogue seems flat and dull beside it. The succession of hapless and handsome producers and directors becomes tedious, with the comings and goings charting her life at three different times, sometimes makes it hard to remember which is which.

Nevertheless,  there is the memorable clash between CBS Judy and TV executives is over her refusal to sing Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Over the Rainbow, the song from the 1939 movie Wizard of Oz that made her a teenage star; she’s sick of it.

But the intertwined storyline and combination of singers does make for a magical finale. The show ends with Penrose, Wollaston and Sheals singing, quietly and unaccompanied, Over The Rainbow together. The audience goes crazy. 

Judy! could get a green light for that moment alone. It runs at the Arts Theatre until June 17. Beats me why not for a longer run. This is one of those musicals that could become the talk of the town and, like the performances of Judy herself, go on for ever.

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