Although Judy Garland all but haunts our pop history, she proves a recalcitrant ghost for the first half of "And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland," the one-woman show featuring Kathy St. George (at left) as the down-and-out but indomitable chanteuse. St. George and director Tony McLean (who developed and produced the show) have clearly tried to distinguish their efforts from those of the many female impersonators who have donned cocktail drag and tremblingly belted "Over the Rainbow" to appreciative crowds. And for good reason - the king of these impressionists, Jim Bailey, once actually got Liza Minnelli to squeal, "It's Momma!" (she later did a gig with him in Vegas). Even Bailey only approximated Garland's look, but he nailed her lushly brassy sound.
Of course these days female impersonation has gone post-modern: Rufus Wainwright recently re-staged Judy's celebrated Carnegie Hall concert completely on his own terms -perhaps because Judy's talent, one of the greatest of the twentieth century, attracted some of the greatest material of said century. St. George benefits from the same strength: after a wobbly first half, in which she tries to play the "real" Garland (reading verbatim some notoriously dishy tapes she recorded for her autobiography), St. George settles back gloriously into Garland's stage persona for the second half, and delivers knockout renditions of such standards as "Almost Like Being in Love," "The Trolley Song," "The Man That Got Away," "A Couple of Swells," and, of course, "Over the Rainbow." Alas, despite an admirable simulation of Judy's mannerisms (the spastic fluffing of the hair, the splayed palm inching skyward), the illusion that Garland is actually standing before us never quite takes hold - but the sense that St. George is channeling Judy's energy is more than palpable (she's most Garlandesque, actually, in her comic repartee - some funny bits while changing behind a stage trunk, in fact, mark precisely a transition from Kathy to Judy and back).
As for that lame first half - it's most interesting as proof of Judy's personal wit, even in an apparently bombed-out state (not for nothing was she a favorite on talk shows back when they were about conversation). St. George gets her laughs, true, but she seems tentative in her physicalization, and simply unwilling (perhaps because of McLean's idolization of the star?) to take us as low as Judy was known to go. The burnt-out croak we briefly hear on tape is a sad testament to Garland's personal wreckage, but St. George, declaiming the same lines, may be blue but is clearly unbroken (even though the core of the piece is the contrast between the bright lights of Garland's onstage life and the dark depths of her offstage one). If this is an attempt to play "the role of Judy Garland" (as director McLean puts it), then St. George's performance, alas, isn't even a patch on the Emmy-winning turn by Judy Davis in the TV movie Me and My Shadows.
Ah, but then there's that concert, with St. George, ably accompanied by Tim Evans, at the top of her form - at times she almost jumps for joy in her nosebleed heels. McLean and his Backyard Productions have spent some money on the show, so we even get the signature wall-o-bulbs spelling out JUDY, and credible facsimiles of the props and costumes immortalized by the kinescopes of her shows and appearances. It's here that the love McLean and St. George have for their idol, which held them back in Act I, completely pays off - in the end, zing, zing, zing go our heartstrings, and we have to admit that Judy Garland is not the one that got away.