It’s safe to say, there will only ever be one Judy Garland… except when there’s three! It figures that for a woman who epitomises show business, and for whom the term legend seems almost insufficient, it would take three brilliantly talented performers to capture her presence. A stunning tribute and an outstanding ensemble piece, Ray Rackham’s production Judy! is, simply put, both a tribute and a mission. The goal, to put a legend back on the stage – where she belongs!
Capturing the career of a woman who seems larger than life must be a daunting prospect when you consider the films, television appearances, and live performances. Fittingly for an unconventional woman, Rackham’s piece takes an unconventional approach. He presents to us Judy in three stages of her career, the tenacious young girl vying against Shirley Temple for her first role as Dorothy, Palace Theatre Judy at the height of her career and a tour de force on stage, and finally, CBS Judy who is older and theoretically wiser, yet still very much the little girl just wanting to be loved. While never interacting directly, the three Judys work with exceptional synchronicity and harmony on stage, passing focus and energy between them as the narrative shifts between chapters of her life.
Tom Paris’ set design is brilliantly versatile and neatly allows for easy transitions between periods of her career, performing on stage one minute and recording a few moments later. The incorporation of theatrical lighting, both as a practical necessity and an element of the set, creates a level of realism and intimacy that is supported by the talented small cast of onstage musicians and ensemble performers.
While all three Judys deliver outstanding performances and exhibit stunning vocals, each brings something quite unique to the role. As mature CBS Judy, Helen Sheals is a somewhat intimidating representation of ‘tornado Judy’. While demanding and often unreasonable, she exhibits a strength and resilience honed through years of hard work and heartbreak. Sheals’ all-knowing gaze, as she follows the younger Judy’s movements across the stage is full of intense emotion, carrying a poignant longing for visions of her younger self. The elegance and sincerity she brings to the role lay a foundation for a portrayal that is both the extravagant and unattainable star yet also a deeply vulnerable and wounded human being.
As Palace Theatre Judy, Belinda Wollaston has perhaps the most challenging role of depicting the star in her prime but also teetering on the edge of her battle with substance abuse. Vocally incomparable and faultlessly balancing vulnerability with on-stage prowess, she delivers a Judy who is at the same time enviable and demanding of empathy. Her chemistry with Harry Anton’s Sid Luft is exceptional, the two providing a window into one of the most turbulent of Judy’s relationships (with the exception of course of Vincente Minnelli). Indeed, the steamy scene towards the close of the first act could have been viewed as over the top was it not for the genuine passion and fierce connection between the two. As it was, this intense scene certainly held the audience’s attention!
For me personally, Lucy Penrose delivers the Judy I know best. Her tenacity and unwavering determination are ever present, however, in vulnerable moments and as she threatens to break down, it’s hard not see her as Dorothy pleading with the Wizard. Indeed, every mannerism and every inflection are perfect and in these moments it’s almost too easy to believe you’re watching Judy herself.
The inevitable and much-anticipated performance of over the rainbow delivers on every level. Involving all three Judys, the stunning vocal arrangement is elegant and true to the original, yet carries a sadness and tenderness that encapsulates the pain and undying aspirations of a woman for whom the fame was almost too much.
It seems a travesty that a show of this magnitude should be afforded such a short run. A phenomenal production that is worthy of its subject matter, Judy! is an unforgettable opportunity to click our ruby slippers and remind ourselves that there really is no place like home and no Judy like Judy Garland.
Review by Cassandra Griffin
Leaving behind the usual portrayal of Garland’s life as one of pure heartbreak and self-destruction, Ray Rackham has created a poignant and ultimately uplifting story portraying the star as a survivor in a man’s world. He has cleverly created an overlapping story of three ages of Judy – Young Judy (an innocent girl filled with hope and excitement as she heads toward her life-changing performance in The Wizard of Oz), Palace Theatre Judy (a woman at the height of her performing powers in the midst of a passionate romance with Sidney Luft) and CBS Judy (an older and possibly wiser woman) – that demonstrates that no matter how hard we look for love in all the wrong places, the answer is ultimately inside ourselves.
“THE SHOW REMINDS US HOW, IN THE CONFLICT BETWEEN A MERCILESS INDUSTRY AND THE HUNGER FOR LOVE AND LIFE, A STAR IS INEVITABLY TORN” Guardian
The cast includes Helen Sheals (Last Tango In Halifax, Downton Abbey) as CBS Judy, Belinda Wollaston (Mamma Mia, Titanic) as Palace Judy and Lucy Penrose as Young Judy. The memorable score which is brought to life by a live band is a wonderful combination of Garland standards interlinked with some of her lesser known numbers and includes The Trolley Song, The Man That Got Away and, of course, Over The Rainbow.
JUDY! Arts Theatre London
6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Dates: Tues, 16th May to Sat, 17th June 2017