Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Songs My Mother Taught Me
Also see Sharon's review of Judy Garland - A Night in the Life ...
Early in Songs My Mother Taught Me, Lorna Luft explains why she ran from her legacy as Judy Garland's daughter: "A legend is a tough act to follow." It's a glib comment, but it has more than a kernel of truth at its center. Luft didn't sing her mother's material because it would always invite comparisons - and, when you're being compared with Judy Garland, there isn't a whole lot of opportunity to come off favorably. But now, when tribute shows and Judy Garland impersonators abound, Luft has come face to face with the simple truth that nobody can sing her mother's music and tell her mother's story quite like she can. Luft's Songs My Mother Taught Me isn't intended to be a recreation of Garland's performances, but a celebration of them. Luft has chosen to "pick up the torch" and make sure her mother's legacy is not forgotten.
To that end, Luft has made the brilliant decision to perform her mother's original arrangements. Backed by a ten piece band, led by Luft's husband, Colin R. Freeman, Luft sings her way through approximately twenty Garland classics, interspersing them with personal anecdotes from her childhood. At one point, Luft notes that her mother once said that Lorna likes the "loud" numbers, and by happy coincidence, those are the ones Luft excels at. No matter how big a song gets, Luft's delivery is big enough to sell it, and you feel like she's still got a little left over to reach a higher balcony, were one there. Luft's singing is clear, there is never a misunderstood lyric, and she gets a wonderful smile in her voice whenever there's a little swing in the song. Give her "When You're Smiling" or "Just In Time," and she is clearly a happy camper.
Luft can also deliver the ballads, although, again, she is stronger on the ones which build to a big finish, rather than wistfully disappear. The show's raison d'être is for Luft to sing her mother's songs, but her decision to add Jerry Herman's "Time Heals Everything" (introduced as a song she would've liked to have taught her mother), is completely understandable. Luft can handle "The Man That Got Away" like a pro, but a number like "Time Heals Everything" is made for Luft, who builds it to chill-inducing perfection.
In addition to singing her mother's songs, Luft sings some of them with her mother, in Natalie Cole miracle-of-technology fashion. The duets sparkle. Luft does not possess her mother's voice, but she does have enough similarity that the two voices blend in a way only overlapping DNA can.
The second act is dominated by the story of Garland's life, told through a medley of songs (beginning, naturally, with "Born in a Trunk"), as though Luft were telling the tale to her own children. It's a sweet set, but it is all the more remarkable for its prefatory number, a few verses of Sondheim's "Children and Art," that Luft has inserted into the show. In this case, Luft has selected the song not because it shows off her abilities, but because it so perfectly encapsulates the emotion of the show. It is this number, more than any other, that will remain with me. As wonderful as hearing Luft sing Garland's original arrangements is, it provides simply a transitory joy; I know that I will never hear "Children and Art" again, in any context, without thinking of Lorna and Judy.
If there is one flaw in the show, it is Luft's treatment of "Over The Rainbow." At the top of the second act, the orchestra plays what are arguably Garland's three best-known numbers ("The Trolley Song," "Over the Rainbow," and "The Man That Got Away"). During that act, Luft returns to sing the other two, but ends the show without singing "Over the Rainbow." When she comes back for an encore, that is the obvious choice. But Luft does not sing it; she instead plays a clip of Judy singing it, while Luft provides a counterpoint of a different melody. It's lovely, but ultimately unsatisfying. Luft says in act one that this show is about "no fear," but there's clearly a line she's still afraid to cross. And while it might be understandable, given that "Over the Rainbow" isn't really Luft's type of song, she draws attention to its omission by the fact that she does everything but actually sing it.
Don't let that stop you, though. Despite ending on something of a disappointing note, Songs My Mother Taught Me is definitely worth the trip. It is a ride down memory lane led by one person who is absolutely qualified to lead the tour.
Songs My Mother Taught Me runs at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, Thursdays - Sundays through August 31. Tickets available at the Canon Theatre box office (310) 859-2830 or Ticketmaster.
Canon Theatricals/Susan Dietz presents Lorna Luft in Songs My Mother Taught Me, a Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland. Lighting and Sound Design by Matt Berman; Press Representative Patty Onagan Entertainment; Production Stage Manager Liz Brohm; Musical Direction by Colin R. Freeman; Written & Directed by Mitzie & Ken Welch; Rewritten every night by Lorna Luft.