Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Superb portrayal of the flawed genius that was Judy Garland

At the very top of the short list of the truly great live popular music performers of the Twentieth century there are perhaps no more than four or five names. Elvis of course and Sinatra. Streisand. Piaf.  And Judy – all greats identified by just one name. Maybe Michael Jackson - but for me he would be with Elton, Sammy Davis, Tony Bennett and the others just below the apogee. What these mega stars all had was something beyond celebrity – the fame is taken for granted.  The iconic status of an Elvis Presley or a Frank Sinatra was hard earned and was not just a consequence of talent and shrewd promotion. It was because they had a love affair with their public and in when love, when truly in love, we forgive any minor defects. Not, it has to be said, that the defects of these performers were really minor – but we love them unconditionally warts and all. And none more so that Judy Garland. Rainbow

Judy and Edith Piaf both died at 47. Elvis at 42. Jackson at 51. Unlike Francis Albert or Barbra they didn't mature into a more gentle old age. But they all left behind a heritage on film and recording that will surely captivate for all time – but their true greatness  was in live performance. Elvis, fat, incoherent and drugged to the eyeballs gave some fine performances even to the end (and some lousy ones too to be fair!). And so, of course, did Judy Garland. I never saw Judy live and kick myself for not making the effort back in the late 1960s when she was in London. But astonishingly we now have the opportunity to see Judy in the extraordinary “End of the Rainbow” on tour. We are all used to tribute bands and star impersonators. I’ve seen Sinatra and Presley impersonated often – sometime well, sometimes risibly. But I never for one moment thought that I was watching the original.  Tracie Bennett in “End of the Rainbow” does not impersonate Judy Garland – she is Judy Garland.

It is early 1969 and Garland, her health frail and her finances in big trouble, is engaged to perform at London’s Talk of the Town. She has in tow the 34 year old Mickey Deans who was briefly to be her fifth and final husband a few months later.  Also with her is Anthony her British pianist a fictional character but no doubt based on many in Garland’s retinue who remained faithful despite all her excesses. Judy is briefly “clean” but the tensions of the situation and her fright of performance force her back on the booze and the pills. The dramatic tension is sustained by portrayal of the uneasy ménage à trois between the three main characters and by the big question as to whether Judy will actually be able to perform at all. She needs the money desperately, she cannot even pay her hotel bills. But will she be able to drag herself on stage and if she does will she be able to stand up and sing? Well the answer is yes, and how! Notwithstanding her   problems the old trooper mentality cuts in as we get excerpts from a number of authentic Judy Garland performances. After a claustrophobic opening with Judy and her small entourage cooped up in a small hotel suite we are transported to the Talk of the Town and a large (and very good) band is suddenly seen on stage. Judy belts out some of her familiar repertoire – all memorably performed by Ms Bennett. The Trolley Song is blasted out with all the panache that made it pure Garland, as are nine other numbers.

This show is an accurate, poignant and sad portrayal of a moment in the final few months of Judy Garland's life (she died a few months later of a massive drug overdose). But it is also a tribute to what made her great and as with the small group of other greats her strengths are her weaknesses. Her determination once on the stage to give of her best echoes Elvis and Piaf and Sinatra. But the flipside of this determination was her absolutely uncontrollable and fiery personality that made her hard to work with and impossible to live with. Flawed genius – but which true genius was not similarly flawed?

Tracie Bennett has had a long, distinguished and award-winning stage career – but this is surely her finest performance in a role made for her and to which she brings extraordinary energy, style and pathos. If she retains the part when the show goes to Broadway next year (rather than some American Diva getting the role) she will surely wow the audiences Stateside just is she is doing on this tour. A Five star evening.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Sincerely, Noël” - but not Noël enough for me

The question that anyone planning to go to see “Sincerely, Noël” needs to ask themselves is this  “Would I go to the theatre to hear Alistair McGowan sing ?”  McGowan is, of course, a brilliant impressionist and a decent actor. He is not really known for his singing skills but, on the evidence of “Sincerely, Noël” he has a pleasant tuneful voice and he can carry a song. Sufficient, you would think when combined with his ability to do accurate impressions, to carry off an evening of and as Noël Coward. After all the Master’s own distinctive vocal style whilst musically adept, was hardly such that he would manage to hold an audience for very long except with his own material. But only once, and then fitfully, do we get McGowan as Noël – when he performs “Alice is at it again” which he does, in part, with Cowardian intonations. The other songs in the show are not presented as Coward at all, but as McGowan -  and frankly you wouldn't really pay good money to hear him sing. Its a huge missed opportunity because on the flimsy evidence of that one song Alistair McGowan could certainly “do” Noël Coward very well indeed.

So if we do not get any Noël Coward impressions during the evening what do we get? It is all Coward’s material and it has been well chosen to include a few rarities as well as some of the more familiar songs, poems and sketches.   The balcony scene from Private Lives is nicely performed and for me a real highlight was the extraordinary poem “Not yet the Dodo” a classic of socially liberal writing and a quite  remarkable observation of the generation gap and of class.

McGowan’s partner is Charlotte Page who, unlike him, is a professional singer of distinction. I found her voice a tad over operatic for some of the material but it is unquestionably a very fine voice – she is also a good actress   able to change her accent well as required by the material.

Except during the “Dodo” piece I did not sense a frisson of engagement from the audience – there was no real buzz and even the laughter and applause felt a little forced. There were no doubt many Coward aficionados at the Cadogan Hall and I’m fairly sure that they would have felt that they had been a little short-changed by the evening. There was only one total turkey and that was “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” – one of Noël’s iconic pieces of course. This was presented not as a solo Cowardesque musical recitation but as a duet with the performers doing the song in silly cod Germanic voices as if they were a couple of Germans commenting on the foolishness of the English for going out in the Midday sun. It was really as dire as it sounds and should long ago have been replaced in the programme.

McGowan gives us “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner” in the style of a speech by William Hague  (and earlier he did a wickedly accurate Will Self impression). These were slightly gratuitous in the context of the evening but they showed what might have been. We could have done with a tad more light-heatedness of this sort and much much more of McGowan as Coward which, not unreasonably, I suspect that most of the audience had expected they would see.