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Posts Tagged ‘Judy Garland’

The Wainwright-McGarrigle musical dynasty has been part of my life now for 40 years. The first Kate & Anna McGarrigle album is on my personal soundtrack of the 70’s. Loudon was always lingering there in the background, though I never took to his quirkiness as I did to the McGarrigles gorgeous harmonies. I came late to Rufus, when Want One bowled me over little more than 6 years ago, but have since bought every record and taken every opportunity to see him live. A year or so later I went to see Martha at the Bloomsbury Theatre out of curiosity (with a singer-songwriter called James Morrison supporting!) and from then I was hooked on her too. She provided one of the highlights of 2010 with a solo show at the Jazz Cafe, a break from nursing her premature baby, and contributed greatly to another highlight, the Kate McGarrigle tribute concert that was part of Richard Thompson’s Meltdown – another musical dynasty – which I suspect will prove to be a highlight of a lifetime of concert-going let alone last year.

When I heard Rufus was to have a one week residency at the Royal Opera House, I couldn’t decide if it was brave, arrogant or sheer chutzpah. After picking myself off the floor having seen the ticket prices, it wasn’t difficult to decide which of the concerts to go to. I’d seen his opera Prima Donna twice, so I didn’t want to see part of it in concert, and I wasn’t sure he and his dad Loudon were particularly compatible stage partners.

The first of my selected two was his concert with sister Martha. This may be Rufus’ ROH debut, but it wasn’t Martha’s as she’d been part of a brilliant production of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins here a few years back. This concert wasn’t what I was expecting, and I suspect fans of the family liked it more than those of just Rufus, but it was still a treat. Martha, after a slow start, delivered a wonderfully eclectic hour of her own songs plus some from her mum and a couple of Piaf’s. She’s growing into as much of an original and as much of a star as her brother. I was expecting Rufus to give us his own selection, but half-way through, on came Martha, then cousin Lily (Anna’s daughter), and we got another eclectic selection which included more Kate McGarrigle songs, a Leonard Cohen song (‘my father-in-law, well, sort of’!) and the Elton John / Kiki Dee duet Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which was huge fun. Calum, the son of Ewan MacColl (another folk dynasty!) was on guitar so we got Ewan’s lovely homage to London – Sweet Thames, Flow Softly – which was deeply moving, though not as moving as Kate’s Talk To Me of Mendocino, where there wasn’t a dry eye in my seat in the House of Rufus.

When he first did Rufus Does Judy, I couldn’t get excited about it. I wasn’t a Judy Garland fan and didn’t really see the point. Much later, I caught it on TV and then got the point, so seeing it live became a must. By the interval, I wasn’t sure but the second half (when he came on as a queen in crown and robe!) soared and my the end I was absolutely convinced. The arrangements are terrific and his extraordinary voice really suits these songs. The Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Oremus, was a great backing band, though a shade too loud occasionally, burying the voice. Highlights included two songs with just piano – Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and Noel Coward’s If Love Were All – plus You Go To My Head, Putting on the Ritz, Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart and Chicago. Martha’s almost stole the show with a brilliant version of Stormy Weather (in tutu, tiara and some accomplished but tongue-in-cheek ballet moves!).

So, not arrogant…..yes, brave……yes, chutzpah……and two fine musical evenings I shall cherish with all the other Wainwright-McGarrigle memories.

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I don’t really share the fascination and adulation many still have with Judy Garland over 40 years after her death. I’d even go as far as to say that way too much has been said and written about her. In fact, I find the obsession with dead ‘stars’ in general a bit difficult. Not a great starting point for this show then!

By focusing on a very short period at the end of her life, what playwright Peter Quilter has done is delivered something with more psychological depth than your average biographical play. I can’t say I entirely understand what turns someone into the wreck she was at the end of her life, but the play does help you begin to understand.

The action takes place in her London hotel room (finely detailed design from the great Bill Dudley) and the Talk of the Town where she is performing a five-week stint. The two men in her life are the other main characters – gay pianist and confidante Anthony and toy boy fiancée / manager Micky; the motivation of the former seemingly genuine but the later somewhat dubious. By playing out the tempestuous will-she-won’t-she-perform back story alongside concert scenes, the play explores the psychological and emotional journey they’re all on. I was a bit shocked when the hotel room wall rose to reveal a small band, but these performance scenes and snatches are an important element to the story – fortunately they’re played for realism in context rather than concert perfection.

It must be very difficult to play any other character against this larger-than-life icon, but both Stephen Hagan as Mickey and Hilton McRea do extremely well to bring their characters to life. I felt Tracie Bennett occasionally came close to pushing her performance over the edge, but it is an extraordinary acting achievement. At the curtain call, I was so exhausted I only just managed to get to my feet to join the spontaneous ovation, while she bounced on stage looking like she could do it all over again!

To turn this cynic around is no mean achievement and to witness Tracie Bennett’s own star performance is an unmissable treat.

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