Judy Garland Live!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 21, 2009
Tommy Femia has been doing his Judy Garland impersonation to great acclaim for some two decades now, so who am I to buck the trend? I caught his current show at Don't Tell Mama, Judy Garland Live!, and while the crowd around me was whooping and hollering their approval, I have to admit to being generally underwhelmed.
In the show, which lasts a bit longer than an hour, Femia sings several Garland standards (e.g., "The Man That Got Away," "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "Chicago," and of course "Over the Rainbow"), most of them practically note-for-note re-creations of the performances on the classic Carnegie Hall concert album. He also sings some songs that Judy never had a chance to perform, such as "I'll Plant My Own Tree," a mediocre number from the movie The Valley of the Dolls, and the Sondheim classic "I'm Still Here." (Neither struck me particularly as a song that the actual Judy Garland would have added to her act, the former epitomizing the drag queen's sense of irony rather than her own well-developed sense of humorous self-deprecation, and the latter simply not applicable, since the fact is that Judy was not a survivor and this song does not tell her story, an inserted verse about her childhood film career notwithstanding.)
My favorite parts of Femia's performance were the banter between songs, which is often very witty, especially if you know all the banter from the Carnegie Hall album by heart.
What confused me about the show is its point of view. Sometimes Femia is delivering a top-notch Judy impersonation, intent on bringing the legend back to life more or less the way we remember her. Sure, he exaggerates the weird hand movements in places, but the costumes, the shoes, the walk, the makeup, the amazing clear eyes, the vibrato—all of these details are dead-on. At other times, though, Femia is giving us a camp Judy, one who bitches about her daughter Lorna (why?), makes fun of Liza, and tells a faux-innocent dirty joke about Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves on Fire Island. I can understand the appeal of either of these versions of Judy, but the juxtaposition of the two together in a single show never quite made sense to me.
What I thought about, as I watched and listened, was how finally un-imitable the actual Judy Garland turns out to be. The vulnerability, the soulfulness, the miraculous musicality are all impossible to duplicate, I think (even Liza never gets those last two, in my opinion). When you hear Garland sing a song like "Smile," you feel like you're being let in on a secret that only she and the musicians and the writers are otherwise privy to. She inhabited the great songs she sang, and Femia can't take us there. (I don't think he intends to, by the way; but as I said, I don't really understand what he intends to do here, precisely.)
Each of the shows in this Don't Tell Mama engagement features a special guest. Announced future guests are Karen Mason and Michael Musto; at the show I attended, it was Eric Millegan, of TV's Bones and Broadway's most recent Jesus Christ Superstar revival. Millegan has real presence, and the two songs he sang, accompanying himself on the piano, are neat little gems—"It Gets Lonely" by Tom Caruso and Michael L. Cooper and the hilarious "Denial" by Rick Crom. Millegan took the Barbra Streisand role in a duet with Femia, doing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in counterpoint to Judy's "Get Happy"; he was terrific. I'll be eager to see what he does on the stage next.
Femia's accompanist is Christopher Denny.