Much anticipated, Happy Birthday Judy!, a benefit concert for The Mabel Mercer Foundation featuring mutually admiring performers Carole J. Bufford and Stephanie Blythe, morphed into a solo show when Blythe’s husband was hospitalized and she regretfully withdrew. With only days to rewrite and reformat, Bufford, MD John Boswell, Tom Hubbard – bass, Howie Gordon – drums and guest artist T. Oliver Reid, managed to pull a rather large rabbit out of the waiting hat.
John Boswell; Carole J. Bufford
This is an evening celebrating the icon and her work, we’re told, not a story of tragedy. With just enough personal and historical reference, aided and abetted by her capable MD, Bufford makes an astonishing tapestry of material cohesive. The evening ran seamlessly.
Judy Garland sang 1919’s “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton/Henry Creamer) at age 13, then again at 20, in the film For Me and My Gal. This arrangement bridges. Bufford’s Al Hirschfeld-like articulate left arm, splayed fingers, and sharp strut exemplify oomph. She stakes out her territory with highbeam eyes reaching off stage. Focus is consummate, energized rather than dissipated by zeroing in on individual faces.
A brassy rendition of “Maybe I’ll Come Back” (Charles L. Cooke/ Howard C. Jeffrey) closed all Garland’s General Electric Theater shows. You may not think you know it, but you do. Hands grasping the microphone stand, Bufford’s interpretation of “Last Night When We Were Young” (Harold Arlen/ Yip Harburg) floats in on lush piano, creating a black and white pre-code film image of empty cocktail glasses, a billowing curtain, and the proverbial beach.
Carole J. Bufford, Tom Hubbard
“Gird your loins, in the spirit of big medleys…” prefaces a swathe of selections from 1913 to the honoree’s last on-screen vocals in 1962’s I Could Go On Singing. The entire club seems to lean in to “You Made Me Love You” (James V. Monaco/Joseph McCarthy), collectively perks up at “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” (James F. Hanley)- performed with hip slapping, bent-knee-kick-back glee, and an animated “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm-After They’ve Seen Paree?” (Walter Donaldson/Joe Young/Sam M. Lewis).
By the time Bufford gets to “The Trolley Song” (High Martin/Ralph Blaine), an exuberant rendition met by audible sighs, momentum has everyone but the vocalist breathless. “I Could Go On Singing” (Harold Arlen/EY Harburg) closes the parenthesis jubilant rather than desperate as performed in the film of the same name.
MD/pianist John Boswell is in sure sync. His vocal duet of Irving Berlin’s “Snooky Ookums” bubbles up wry. The musician steps in for then-16 year-old Liza Minnelli on Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim’s “Together” and for Barbra Streisand on the iconic 1963 counterpoint rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy.” Tom Hubbard is showcased with a cooool, bass-centric interpretation of Fred Fisher’s “Chicago.”
Guest T. Oliver Reid joins Bufford for I“A Couple of Swells” (Irving Berlin) with Cliff Notes on Easter Parade‘s radically changed film cast including the switch of Fred Astaire for Gene Kelly and for “Friendship” (Cole Porter) prefaced by reference to Garland’s “torrid” affair with Johnny Mercer (an odd choice of material to reflect this). Both are jauntily directed, infectiously cheery duets.
T. Oliver Reid; Carole J. Bufford
A lovely foxtrot version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) is dedicated to Bufford’s front and center parents. It’s their wedding song. From behind, I watch Bill Bufford dab his eyes with a napkin, then take his wife’s hand.
The evening closes with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Of course. A protean performance.
Producer Sanford Fisher assures me the intended duet concert will be mounted at a later date.
The storied venue itself deserves a call out here. A sold-out show audience was served three course dinners and drinks in timely, unobtrusive fashion.
Opening: Left photo Judy Garland 1957 (Public Domain); Right photo by Julian Macker
All performance photos by Helane Blumfield
Happy Birthday, Judy !
Benefit concert for The Mabel Mercer Foundation
Carole J. Bufford – Vocals
John Boswell – MD/piano/vocals
Tom Hubbard -bass; Howie Gordon -drums
315 West 44th Street
HEADS UP: Mabel Mercer – The 33rd Annual New York Cabaret Convention October 26-28 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater