ARLINGTON – The current cinematic offering “A Star Is Born” starring Lady Gaga is doing well both among audiences and critics alike. Signature Theatre of Arlington could not have chosen a better time for its cabaret-style show “Judy Garland: A Star Is Born,” which features the music, life and legacy of the iconic star of the earlier 1954 film version of “A Star Is Born.”
To riff off of the title of another Garland work, “Zing! Went the strings” of the hearts of the audience of the Signature Theatre’s show during the performance I saw; all in the audience, including this reviewer, were deeply touched by this moving celebration of Garland’s life and work.
Anchoring the show are Katie Mariko Murray and Awa Sal Secka, with musical accompaniment by Chris Urquiaga and Bill Hones.
Murray and Secka provide spot-on vocal renditions of Judy Garland’s signature tunes. Pianist Urquiaga, backed effectively by bassist Hones, opens the show with a flourishing overture previewing some of the pieces to be performed later, much as one might hear in a classic MGM musical as opening credits roll.
Another piece highlighting Urquiaga’s showmanship is “I Love a Piano,” and it really is a “killer diller,” to use the idiom of the era in which Garland enjoyed some of her greatest successes, the late 1930s through the mid-1950s. The number is a piano and voice duet: Secka’s vocals are positively incandescent, while Urquiaga “goes all out,” playing in a variety of jazz styles, including honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, and stride, and even incorporating a few modern jazz qualities as well.
Secka’s rendition of “You Made Me Love You” is also exquisite. While singing “I Don’t Care,” Murray shows great charisma, breaking the fourth wall by interacting with some of the audience members. A further famous composition which she performs exceptionally well is “The Man That Got Away,” a song with added meaning, given that it came from a time when Judy Garland was staging a comeback in her film version of “A Star Is Born,” even as her personal life was crumbling.
The show has an unusual twist in that two vocalists are used to portray Garland’s voice. Murray sounds uncannily like the original Judy Garland as she sings the Garland standards throughout the evening’s performance. In contrast, Secka channels the late icon’s speaking voice particularly well, acting out the naïve personality played by Judy Garland as she sang this song to Clark Gable’s photo in the motion picture “Broadway Melody of 1938.”
Most audiences today will likely remember Garland from childhood exposure to “The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps Garland’s most beloved film, though this movie was also a difficult experience for the star.
Indeed, the show does not gloss over Garland’s difficulties in life. Three pieces are performed from the “Oz” film — the lyrical “Over the Rainbow,” the ebullient anthem “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” and a number unfortunately deleted from the final cut, “The Jitterbug.” Going forward in Judy Garland’s life, a memorable number from “Meet Me in St. Louis” is sung by Murray as Secka provides sound effects with a triangle and bell to “The Trolley Song,” better known as “Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the Trolley.” Another special moment in the show is when Murray and Secka sing respectively as Garland and Barbra Streisand, mimicking their memorable duet on the 1960s Judy Garland television show in which the long-established star sang “Get Happy” and the up-and-coming one sang “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
The show is deeply personal, as the show’s two vocal stars narrate the story of Garland’s life and explain how they were influenced by her stylistically. They also perform her music in mostly chronological sequence. This reviewer’s only concern about the show is that the performers’ admiration for Judy Garland may occasionally influence their historical interpretations.
One example of this is their suggestion that Grace Kelly’s winning an Academy Award instead of Garland was unjust, when in fact Kelly’s acting talents were, and continue to be, widely acknowledged.
The concern, however, is minor compared to the magnificent performances which show, both in narration and in songs (notably “After You’ve Gone” and “By Myself”), the curious dichotomies embodied by Judy Garland: shyness and brashness, naiveté and Weltschmerz, and vulnerability and resilience, as well as showing why Garland’s music and films remain popular.
For Garland fans, this is a show not to be missed – a memorable experience that you “Gotta have (it) go with you,” to paraphrase one the song titles. And for those less familiar with the star’s legacy, the show adds much depth to a viewing of the current Lady Gaga version of “A Star Is Born.” “Judy Garland: A Star Is Born” plays at the Signature Theatre through Jan. 26.