Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, July 11th)

Musical icon Judy Garland is the real star in a touring production which fails as often as it succeeds, yet manages to pay glorious tribute to one of the true singing and acting greats.

Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland is a real hotchpotch of a show, veering between the worst kind of over-zealous cruise liner entertainment and glittering performances more than worthy of the stage and screen legend.

The pot at the end of this rainbow is undoubtedly the outstanding presence of Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft, who leaves the appreciative audience breathless with delight at her energy. She arrives well into the first half but once there she injects enough charisma, fun and boundless zing to ensure the evening fizzes. There’s a couple of well-chosen anecdotes about her mother plus performances of such classics as Born in a Trunk, Chicago and The Man That Got Away that are nothing short of stupendous. The tour is being curtailed to finish at Brighton as Lorna has to return home for medical treatment and we wish her well – not that any allowances need to be made for her. Hers is pure talent and she’s a real trooper and trouper.

How on earth anyone begins to capture the timeless star quality of Judy Garland – who performed for 45 of her 47 short years – must have been the question on most lips when the idea for this show was first mooted. Creative director Arlene Phillips and director Christopher Manoe answered it with this offering, a sometimes awkward blend of limited live music, recorded backing tracks, intelligent use of film clips and a collection of generally classy singers.

More than once there is a feeling that this is a good show trying to escape the evil clutches of a bad show – it’s as though the ingredients are all there but haven’t always been mixed properly. There’s just so much red and black set and costumes that one can take in an evening and while The Boyfriends do their best in the dance department Richard Roe’s choreography is less than stimulating. 

It’s not just a cabaret or concert entertainment – but the show lacks a narrative thread (why not have short captions on the screens telling some of the story or picking out significant moments in addition to the film trailers?) which may have provided more substance. There are some very nice film segments (Judy singing the Johnny Mercer Song for Lorna to her daughter in 1964; the number Mr Monotony, cut from Easter Parade; and Judy telling the story of annoying insects when performing at the Greek open-air theatre in Los Angeles) though these serve as a constant reminder that none of the stage performers could come close to this matchless star.

And yet where there are gems they shine and glisten so brightly, all can be forgiven. In addition to Lorna’s sparkling turn, there are extremely strong performances from Louise Dearman (one of the very finest musical stars around) and the always top form Darren Bennett.  The pair get a chance to sing together in But Not for Me/Embraceable You but among their personal highlights are Louise’s knock ‘em dead rendition of Stormy Weather, and Darren pairing with Rachel Stanley for Couple of Swells, and with an underused Ray Quinn for Putting on the Ritz.

There’s some memorable moments from Georgina Hagen too, with strong performances of The Boy Next Door and Johnny One Note, but the undisputed highlight – and the one winning the most applause, whoops and whistles – is when Lorna Luft and Louise Dearman recreate the infamous Garland and Barbra Streisand television duet from 1963 featuring Get Happy, Happy Days and Hooray for Love. It’s the show’s masterstroke and is worth the price of admission alone.

As the final company number I’m Always Chasing Rainbows dissolves into a Garland montage accompanied by her own touching live version of Over the Rainbow, the feeling remains that this is a decent enough show that with a little more thought and daring might have been stunning.

David Guest