Joan Sings Judy at 54 Below

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[article originally published at Theater Pizzazz, June 4, 2016.]

Joan Ellison.
Joan Ellison.

The petite figure appears in a delectable blue cocktail ensemble with sparkly clear heels determined to evoke another petite performer’s work from over 50 years ago on concert stages, movie sets, radio studios. Joan Ellison’s current show Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-54 focuses on a specific period of Judy Garland’s film and concert work, drawing from a motherlode of musical history in arrangements, in the set list of more than a dozen tunes and a few encores, and in her scripted patter.

The artistry of Judy Garland can be celebrated in myriad ways. Present a film and television festival and gather fans together in her name, as the Paley Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center did so marvelously in the 2011 Summer of Garland. Organize fan clubs (some have existed since the mid 1950s) that convene in person and on line to discuss, compare, refine knowledge, compete with factoids, and celebrate her wit, wisdom and wonder. Craft a stage show featuring Garland as a minor character (Boy from Oz in which Ellison appeared as Garland in a recent Florida production) or a major character (End of the Rainbow). Reconstruct a concert Garland performed in her life time, as solo artists and groups have staged using Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hallrepertoire and arrangements. Or, as Ellison has done, create a cabaret act with themes suggested by Judy Garland’s movies (using soundtrack and Decca recordings and outtakes never released) and concerts and radio appearances from 1944 through 1954. It’s a challenge, a delicate balance, that Ellison executes with mixed success.

There are many moments of charm in this particular show, yet the airy soprano belt of Joan’s instrument is often not well suited to the Garland material assembled. Ellison has archived and arranged a grand representative array of Garland tunes representing her young adult life from age 22 or so in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) to age 32 and the recording of “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born (1954). The show captures a fertile professional period for Garland, from her most successful M-G-M film through her firing from the studio, to her initial wildly successfully concert engagements at the Palladium and the Palace, to her great 1954 remake of A Star is Born. From the rousing set openers of “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” (played with a bit too much bounce and not enough yearning) and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” all full of youthful belting energy, through the encores that were used in Garland’s 1951-1952 Palace Theatre engagement, the show doesn’t provide many varied emotional notes.

Allison has a fine airy and strong voice, with a pronounced vibrato but a style that doesn’t focus on gravitas. Her arrangements and treatments of Garland’s work land best when there’s light humor at the core. The silly-ish “Johnny One Note” that Garland performed as herself in the Lorenz Hart biopic Words and Music(1948) with Mickey Rooney as Hart, follows a delectable “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from the same film in which Ellison displays her keyboard chops – she joins in a speedy and fun four-hand piano arrangement with her music director, Jason Aquila, deliciously evoking the Judy-Mickey camaraderie and love in life and in this film.

While Garland could just “sing real loud” with the best of ‘em, she was, at root, a singing actress, always telling a song’s story. Ellison competently delivers the notes arranged to precisely replicate or merely suggest Garland’s arrangements, without finding her own way into the story-telling emotional core. And it might be a misstep for Ellison to present the three act play “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born (1954) near the end of her program, which only underscores her tendency to sing around the edges rather than evoke the potent story in a song.

Ellison’s book patter is respectful and protective of Garland’s memory, and the rare moments where Ellison shares her selection rationale shine. We’re half way through the show when Ellison suggests her choice of Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” from Easter Parade(1948) due to the personal and professional resonance between her life story and the stories of characters Hannah Brown (played by Garland) and Don Hewes (played by Fred Astaire). Given the breadth of available material from Garland’s life work on stage, film, and television, these moments where Ellison shares her rationale are potent.

Ellison’s sunny stage personality is fun to be around but I missed a consistent focus on Ellison’s story of finding Garland and hearing Ellison making Garland’s songs her own. This show may be a fine display of Ellison’s instrument and musical taste. As an evocation of the spirit of Garland’s legacy, this show falls short.

Joan Allison’s “Get Happy! Judy Garland 1944-‘54”  June 3 at Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)   646 -476-3551   www.joanellison.com/

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 4, 2016)

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