By Ron Fassler . . .
The 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series has been presenting original shows for more than fifty years now. Over that time, hosts of songwriters (later broadened to include performers) have been saluted by the finest denizens of the musical theatre and cabaret worlds. On Saturday, in the first of a three-performance engagement, the series’ Artistic Director, Billy Stritch, lent his considerable singing and piano playing artistry to a night of celebration in honor of Judy Garland’s centenary (she was born June 10, 1922). Its clever motif was to not just dedicate an evening to songs we associate with her, but specifically the one-year period between 1963 and 1964 when her hour-long TV show was broadcast on CBS. Lasting just one season, its twenty-six episodes are all we have of what Garland was like in concert, something Stritch was keen to mention. If it hadn’t been for the TV show, we would only have Garland’s albums as mementoes and evidence of her singular abilities in front of a live audience.
With Stritch as a most reliable narrator, things got off to a swinging start, ably backed by bass player Patrick O’Leary and Mark McLean on drums. Portions of more than thirty songs were performed, some expected “(Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song” and “The Man That Got Away”), some not so much. Credit to the in-depth research involved to unearth some numbers Garland did on her TV show that we don’t associate her with from obscure Broadway fare such as Subways Are for Sleeping and Greenwillow, boasting the composing talents of Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, and Frank Loesser. A quartet of singers were on hand, one male and three female, all with individualistic voices ready to take on the challenge of interpreting so many familiar tunes.
Max Von Essen beguiled with his rendition of “The Man That Got Away,” explicitly not changing any of its pronouns or lyrics, save for one word when he referred to himself as a “one-man fella” in place of “woman” in its final lyric. Later, he mimicked Garland’s way with her microphone chord while lip syncing to the three ladies in the show, each performing sections of well-known Garland songs. Gabrielle Stravelli nailed whatever she was given in a very Garland-like way, utilizing much of her significant jazz background. When she performed “Come Rain or Come Shine” late in the evening, it was a direct replica of the one Garland does on her Grammy-winning “Judy at Carnegie Hall” album, complete with Mark McLean’s gifted recreation of some astounding percussion riffs. Aisha de Haas, a wonderful performer with a legacy inherited from her parents, both of whom had extensive jazz roots, dazzled with such legendary numbers as “Who Cares?” and “Stormy Weather.” Lastly, Alysha Umphress, a Broadway Baby with a powerhouse voice, was given the most difficult task of the night, but she figured out a way to make “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” entirely her own.
As for Stritch at the piano, his effortless way with an audience was on display for the entirety of the show’s ninety-five minute running time. He gave a particularly touching tribute to songs that Garland had occasion to sing about her three children, “Liza,” “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Lorna,” and his duet with Von Essen on a pair of love songs, “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love,” was a powerhouse and audience favorite.
The patter was wonderful, which is where credit must be given to Dick Scanlan, who wrote and directed with aplomb. There was more choreography than the Lyrics & Lyricists series often provides, and Richard Stafford made sure to keep it elegant and simple. Special mention should be made of the projection design by Kylee Loera that incorporated images and even film footage from The Judy Garland Show, which gave the evening a power boost whenever the screen would glow in beauteous black & white. Lit well by John Kelly, this was a first class operation all the way.
There’s no question that even after one performance, “Judy on TV!” can easily be taken out on the road. Here’s hoping it has a future life because it does everything in its power to inform and entertain in fine fashion. Most importantly, it’s a necessary reminder to keep the memory of Judy Garland alive and well for future generations.
“Judy on TV!: Celebrating The Judy Garland Show,” was performed May 6th, May 7th and May 8th at the 92nd Street Y’s Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue, NYC.
Photos: Richard Termine