“She’s back in town” proclaim the posters and programmes – but actually there are three shes in Judy!, and each one is worth an exclamation mark. This is a play with music that looks at aspects of Judy Garland’s performing life, and not the ones usually the subject of theatrical performances. Its three stars shimmer and shine, making the most of the music that made Garland famous and giving insight into a life lived in the spotlight but propelled by the shadows.
Ray Rackham’s original work about the life of Judy Garland, sensibly called Judy! for its West End outing, has already had acclaimed runs at the London Theatre Workshop and the Southwark Playhouse as Through The Mill. Now playing at the Arts Theatre, Rackham’s production (he directs it too) suffers a little from the transition to a proscenium stage but it’s central persuasive conceit – enlivening Garland’s life at three distinct stages of her career – is as refreshingly original as ever.
Tom Paris’ set impressively accommodates Musical Director’s small Judy Garland band (the arrangements and accompaniment are superb) as well as providing a space that reverberates with period detail and encompasses the film studio, theatre and television stages which were home to Garland at different stages of her glittering career. There is an oddly positioned faux piano at the front of the stage, which obstructs the flow of energy from the stage into the auditorium, but otherwise Paris’ design perfectly partners the narrative.
West End style is provided by Jack Weir’s smart and very impressive lighting design. Nostalgia is embraced by moody lighting states which evoke the possibility of youth, the lustful pleasures of performance (on and off stage) and the twilight stages of a powerhouse career. Most impressive are Weir’s evocations of Palace Judy in performance, where the lighting truly takes you to another place, another theatre, and the sense of excitement and bravura performance is reflected not just in Belinda Wollaston’s blindingly good singing, but in the dazzle of illumination, the effulgent halo that marks her out as a star.
All three of the female leads excel: Young Judy (Lucy Penrose), Palace Judy (Wollaston) and CBS Judy (Helen Sheals).
Penrose combines naivety and budding ambition to create a memorable sense of the young Garland, about to follow that Yellowbrick Road into immortality. She is fabulously sweet and appealing, and when she lets her voice loose on famous Garland songs, she does so with unfussy vigour and with piercing power that readily reminds one of the early Garland sound. Her work with Tom Elliot Reade’s effective Roger is sweet and affecting, but Penrose is let down by Amanda Bailey’s wholly misjudged Ethel Gumm.
As Palace Judy, Wollaston treads ground more familiar – her version of Judy is the one whom success has embraced, but life, love and liquor has destabilised her and left her fearful of her own stardom. Wollaston lays out the insecurities beautifully and although she is severely hampered by Harry Anton’s wooden Sid Luft (and some scenes of ardour which are too long), she articulates the flickering fears of insecurity with clarity and precision and then knocks Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody out of the park, effortlessly demonstrating the triumph, personal and professional, Garland achieved with her legendary season at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. Wollaston encapsulates the A Star Is Born sensibility perfectly.
The numbers of people familiar with Garland’s television series these days is likely to be small, so Sheals plays the version of Garland likely to be less expected by audiences. The narrative about Garland’s difficulties with CBS and its executives is fascinating and Sheals fleshes it out well, splendidly articulating the notion of the superstar of stage and screen being ignored and manipulated by small screen powerbrokers. She plays the ravaged Garland well, style and slurring hand in hand, as the years of alcohol and drug abuse have left their mark on the star. The Man That Got Away is a splendid meeting of the personal and the professional aspects of Garland, superbly delivered. Perry Meadowcroft gives excellent support as George Schlatter.
Rackman’s production offers the chance to consider what the older versions of Garland might have thought of their younger selves, and there are some truly poignant moments when all three, or some combination of the three, share the stage. Vocally, the highpoint of the evening occurs when The Palace Medley is sung – with real star quality – by the hardworking, talented trio of Judys. Inevitably, Over The Rainbow is unleashed, but it is a performance worth waiting for; another triumph for the trio.
There is much to enjoy here and the three central performances are each, on their own, worth the ticket price. Together, Penrose, Wollaston and Sheals show that Garland’s life was indeed a bowl of cherries – and that some of the men in her life were the pits.