Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Kathy St. George

What can you say about Kathy St. George and Judy Garland, except "it's almost like being in love"? And doesn't love, like hope, spring eternal? Thus Miss St. George (at left, photo by Neil Reynolds) has again returned to her idol's altar, for a second shot at capturing the magic that was missing from "Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland," her one-woman show devoted to the show-biz legend two seasons ago. And this year's model, "Dear Miss Garland," re-tooled with the help of fellow friend-of-Dorothy Scott Edmiston (and his design team), is a marked improvement over the earlier version, although like its predecessor, its "concert" half is still stronger than its "dramatic" half.

But first, for the record, this is not exactly an impersonation; it's more an evocation. St. George is just Garland's height, and bears a passing resemblance to the late star, and her voice - a light, flexible contralto - has a touch of Garland's brass. But St. George can't really summon the anguished wail that Judy had at her beck and call; the deep, unstable fire that made Garland Garland only flickers in St. George's stylings (although she closely matches her idol's phrasing). What St. George has, however, is something like Garland's joyous release in the throes of performance; the strange yin/yang of the singer's oddly blank, hopeful approach to the audience, and then the confident, almost manic high that followed once she'd seduced it, is the thrilling core of "Dear Miss Garland."

Of course it's hard not to succumb to a manic high given the songs that, as Garland, St. George gets to sing. Few chanteuses could claim such a catalogue: "The Man That Got Away," (below) "The Trolley Song," "Get Happy," "Almost Like Being in Love," "A Couple of Swells," "Chicago," and of course that ultimate piece of yearning pop catnip, "Over the Rainbow" - they're all here, in a second act that pretends to re-produce Judy's legendary Carnegie Hall comeback in 1961. It doesn't, not really (leave that to Rufus Wainwright, guys), but this hardly matters, because the band (led by the unflappably talented pianist Jim Rice) is so smoothly capable, the set, props and costumes so appropriate, and the atmosphere so wittily, romantically adult. St. George kicks up her heels - and captures Judy's comic manner and movement even better than she does her voice - and the audience is happy to follow her into orbit (even singing along heartily to "For Me and My Gal"). There probably isn't a more satisfying musical evening for grown-ups to be had this summer in the Hub.

Judy in all her mannered greatness: "The Man That Got Away," shot in one long, glorious take by George Cukor, in A Star is Born.

And the evening's first half is always amusing, although it doesn't quite crack the conceptual nut that the show's moniker, "a theatrical concert," poses. This hints at a glimpse into what made the great Garland tick - and thus the last version of the show tried to give us the star at both top and the bottom her form, with a scene based on croaking, bombed-out confessions made near the end of her career. Well, that didn't work - neither St. George, nor, really, her audience, had the stomach for just how far down Garland could really go. New director Edmiston's solid, show-biz instincts have led to a a complete revamp of that sequence into an endearing, though nudging, trip down memory lane, complete with a whirlwind five-minute tour of The Wizard of Oz in which St. George gives the movie's central tornado a run for its money. Still, so much is left out - the gay husbands, the abortions, the suicidal gestures, the many lies (only the drugs are given any rueful stage time) - that this time around the material winds up feeling charmingly thin, in Edmiston's usual, gently-censored mode. The sequence only reaches one other peak after The Wizard of Oz, with a haunting little dance to "Me and My Shadow."

Oh well, perhaps in its inevitable third iteration just the right balance will be struck in the show's first half. And in the end, "what made Judy tick" is right on stage anyhow, when St. George tears into "Almost Like Being in Love" or any of a half-dozen other standards. But just btw (not that anybody asked), next time around can we please retire "Swanee" (the Al Jolson number that Judy hung onto long after it had begun to feel a little creepy)? And I'm not sure the extended "Somewhere There's a Someone" sequence from A Star is Born works without the movie's staging. And in the first half, how about working in Gershwin's "But Not for Me," or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"? Sigh. In case you can't tell, I'm something of a Garland fanatic myself.

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