Judy Garland - A Night in the Life ...
Also see Sharon's review of Songs My Mother Taught Me
It's 1961. You pop into a New York nightclub, Jezebel's, for a post-theatre drink. Ron, the piano guy, is playing showtunes. You join in a sing-along of "I Could Have Danced All Night," and then play theatre trivia for free drinks. Ron asks a real stumper that nobody in the room can answer. An unmistakable voice calls the answer from the doorway. It's Judy Garland, stopping by on the way home from her concert at Carnegie Hall. She heard you all having fun and couldn't resist joining in. She stays, ultimately taking over the microphone (nobody minds - least of all Ron) and doing an impromptu concert for the patrons, although she still keeps to the friendly spirit of the room, so sometimes tries to engage you in conversation and get you to sing with her.
You wish. OK, it never really happened, but that's the setup of Judy Garland - A Night in the Life ... , playing at the Actors Forum Theatre in North Hollywood. (If ever a show called for a cabaret setting, this would be it. Full marks to this team for its game attempts to create a piano bar atmosphere in a traditional stage setting.) Actress Julie Sheppard impersonates Garland out on the town, duplicating the lady's voice and mannerisms, sometimes with uncanny accuracy. Sheppard has Judy's open-mouthed smile down pat, and the way she moves about the impromptu stage is quite Garland-esque. Sheppard's voice has the same clear, bright tone of Judy's. Her belt is a little too gravelly and occasionally she gets a little too nasal, but mostly, she sounds just like the woman she's aiming to sound just like. Close your eyes when she sings "Get Happy," or "Born in a Trunk" (or, if you request it, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and you hear Judy singing it.
The real problem with this show is that it is ultimately limited by its cute set-up. Sheppard tries to duplicate Garland's ability to sell a showstopper on the Carnegie Hall stage, but she looks a little ridiculous arching way back and shouting into a microphone poised above her mouth when she's standing a few feet away from the audience in an intimate setting. And while the solo accompaniment of a piano is fine for "The Man That Got Away," it seems a little thin on "Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody." Also, our Judy tries a duet with our piano guy, and their voices just don't blend. The duet is fine for the spirit of the show, and keeps it from just being a "Julie Sheppard Does Judy Garland" concert, but Ron's voice is much too high to create a good harmony with hers.
The show has a paper-thin book which allows Ron and Sheppard to interact. Sometimes, particularly at the beginning, when Ron musically flirts with Judy to entice her to sing, it is engaging and adorable. But other times, it falls flat, such as when Ron implies that his ex-roommate was more than a roommate. Judy is sympathetic, and Ron (after a beat) says, "Sing 'The Man That Got Away.'" As both an introduction to the song, (which Sheppard goes on to sing with a jazzy arrangement) and an acknowledgement of Judy's position in the gay community, it is woefully inadequate.
Ron is a spiffy pianist, and Sheppard is a delightful Judy. The show is chock full of moments when you just think, "Damn, that is Judy Garland." But what's really missing is any heart to the show. The attempts to create some level of emotional connection between Ron and Judy don't work, and the end result is simply an evening with a pretty solid Judy Garland impersonator. And in case you're wondering, no, she doesn't sing "Over the Rainbow" either.
Judy Garland - A Night in the Life ... plays at the Actors Forum Theatre in North Hollywood, weekends through August 2nd. (818) 506-0600.
Actors Forum Theatre presents Judy Garland - A Night in the Life ... Producer Audrey M. Singer; Co-Producers T.J. Welles, Lash Fary, Pink Sky Prod., Sunstreaming Prod.; Director J.J. Griffin; Press representation Nora Feldman; Lighting Design John Grant; Box Office Ruth Hansen; Actors Forum Log Charles A. Singer; Legal Counsel Mitchell F. Singer; Light & Sound Operator Pieter Bennett; Production Design Julie Sheppard, T.J. Welles, Tommy Eisenhauser.