Lorna Luft has always had a killer vocal instrument. There is television evidence as early as 1963 (The Judy Garland Show episode 15) of her 12-year-old’s self-possession and developing voice, and ample testimony by her mother in interviews during those years. In her current show at 54 Below, Luft demonstrates to supporters and critics alike that her voice, her life, her spirit now owns any stage.
As Judy Garland’s second daughter, Luft has spent half a century on stage and screen, living with someone else’s legacy and building her own. She embodies the material in this new show in a deep and delightful way. The fact that Luft doesn’t mention her mother’s name even once during her show speaks volumes — she alludes to her mother and her family, of course, but she doesn’t name her, she doesn’t have to. The choice is powerful. The Garland legacy informs song choice and stories and social references that are folded into the patter and set list with an easy lilt. There is a generosity of spirit, a lightness, a rootedness that allows Luft to soar on her own, in her own voice in this context, in a delightful way that eluded me in prior visits with her performances that honored her mother’s work.
I have seen her on stage in the past, always in tributes to her mother’s legacy. Two evenings at Carnegie Hall in 1998, a New York Pops evening in 2011, and a surprising and delightful evening in 2012 with Ann Hampton Callaway saluting the Streisand songbook and Streisand’s 2012 Barclays Center performances. In those prior visits with Luft as a performer, I experienced the proud daughter whose efforts to honor her mother’s legacy I respected and admired, but I didn’t warm entirely to her own stylings, challenged by comparisons. This evening, in this new show, I experience a Luft in command of her set list in a distinctive way that, yes, moved me for the first time. Is it because she allowed us in to feel with her? Were all our emotions a bit more available due to Pride Week and the mass shooting in Orlando just a few days ago and (at the time of our show) Democratic Representatives holding a sit-in calling for a vote on gun regulations on the floor of the Congress in Washington DC? Luft noted, “This Pride is different because our heads hurt,” and everyone in the audience gently nodded in agreement.
Luft began with a simple arrangement of “Once in a Lifetime,” highlighting the talents of musical director and pianist Colin Freeman, Jim Donica on upright bass and bass guitar, and Josh Priest on drums. A smooth segue into the first phrases of Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive” initiated an extended portion of the show, with lovely personal patter addressing the close personal and professional relationship between Mercer and Garland. “On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe” that was a highlight number of her mother’s in the 1946 M-G-M blockbuster The Harvey Girls. “Moon River,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “Jeepers Creepers,” entertained in quick succession. Luft pulled out all her vocal power with a stunning “Blues in the Night,” quickly followed by a rollicking version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” that came closest to the “oh should she go there” feeling of her taking on her mother’s territory — but Luft wins it, earns it, makes this tune her own too. The Mercer section of the show concluded with a powerful reading of “Goody Goody” at an unconventional slow and contemplative tempo (think “Guess Who I Saw Today” as a tremendous acting exercise), and resolved with “Too Marvelous For Words.” Punch and panache, sweet and sour, emotion and resolution.
Other artists were honored with patter and song selections — Peter Allen, her brother-in-law at one time, who she describes telling her as an emotional 14-year-old that all would be well “when she saw her name in lights.” And she embraced several Irving Berlin tunes in a medley including “Blue Skies,” another artist that loved and worked with Garland and whose work White Christmas Luft has now performed several times, with another engagement just announced.
The moment to write home about, a moment that surprised me and my table mate with our floods of tears, came in a Pride Week and Democratic gun reform sit-in informed performance of a familiar, pure, and delectable tune of yearning and possibility and sorrow and hope. Garland introduced “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and myriad performers have attempted it since. After a visit to the Stonewall Inn this week, after this Pride celebration that we all agree is unifying and painful all at once, Luft took on that legacy and took it, and us, home.
Final moments, after an extended standing ovation, were glorious, honoring the “if these walls could talk” history of the Studio 54 basement that Luft visited as a youngster. Disco, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” and we celebrated with delight.
© Martha Wade Steketee (June 23, 2016)
Lorna Luft at 54 Below (254 West 54 Street – Cellar) NYC (June 22, 24, 25, 2016)