Review: Judy: The Songbook of Judy Garland, Playhouse, Edinburgh

THEATRE

JUDY: THE SONGBOOK OF JUDY GARLAND
PLAYHOUSE, EDINBURGH

Judy Garland is many things to many people. To some she is the greatest Hollywood entertainer of all time. To others, a tragic heroine of showbiz and a gay icon.

To Lorna Luft, star of this touring production, Garland was simply “Mom”. Needlesss to say, the show is built around this tangible connection to the Garland legend.

Luft, now in her sixties, and in fine voice, features strongly in a production which rattles through almost 30 famous numbers from Garland’s career.

Like her mother, the singer has the winning absence of false modesty that’s needed of any show business star. At one point she opines, with a smile, “I know I’m talented”.

There’s also time, in a show which combines the singing of Garland’s songs with film clips of the legend both performing and speaking about her life, for a few anecdotal reminiscences from Luft. The most delicious concerns a stay at London’s Savoy hotel, during which Garland and her young daughter played a mischievous trick on the patrons who had left their shoes out for cleaning.

The main business of the evening, however, is the performing of the songs by a cast which includes celebrated West End performer Louise Dearman, X Factor star Ray Quinn and dance group The Boyfriends. The numbers are sung well, but this is not a show for those who like their music live.

There are a pianist, a drummer and a bass player on stage, but most of the Garland songbook requires a big band. The solution creative director Arlene Phillips arrives at, having the singers and musicians accompany a recorded soundtrack, looks very much like a case of making a virtue out of a necessity.

Too often the musicians seem to be on stage for cosmetic purposes, to give the illusion of live performance. In one particularly egregious case, the dancers carry fake wind instruments, pretending to play the recorded music that is being piped in.

If the heavy reliance upon recorded music disappoints, so too does the often uninspired format of the show. From the opening moments, in which dancers with two-dimensional representations of movie cameras cavort around the singers in an evocation of Garland’s stellar film career, there is a predictability to the structure of the production.

The show is saved, nevertheless, by a number of moments which are guaranteed to delight Garland fans. Humorous footage of the star talking about playing California’s insect-infested open air Greek Theatre in summertime is bettered only by touching film of her singing a specially written song to a very young Lorna.

Arguably, however, the highlight of the show is the pairing of Luft and Dearman to perform the famous duet between Garland and a then little known young performer called Barbra Streisand. Perched on bar stools, like the musical stars of yesteryear, the pair sing a medley of Get Happy, Happy Days and Hooray for Love which almost raises the roof off the theatre.

Ending with a reverential screening of the young legend singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, Judy is an undoubted winner for Garland aficionados.

Touring until August 1. For details: judygarlandsongbook.com

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 9, 2015

© Mark Brown

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