In the early 1960s, leading channel CBS made it their business to take down the popular NBC western, Bonanza, for a clean ratings sweep. After several failed attempts, Judy Garland was invited to do a special. She won hands down against the Cartwright cowboys and was quickly contracted for a variety series. If not for this brief succession of appearances (1961/1962), we’d have no record of iconic concert performance. (The last seven shows were virtually that.)
Adroitly and economically written by Dick Scanlan, connecting narrative is presented by multi-talented Billy Stritch who might well have swept the floor or sold tickets in addition to everything else. (Both would be very well done.) Stritch is able and charming as he plays, sings and speaks, not the least because he exudes sincere appreciation.
Billy Stritch, Gabrielle Stravelli, Max Von Essen, Patrick O’Leary, Alysha Umphress, Aisha De Haas
Excellent projections (Kylee Loera) show evocative photographs. A large, stickered steamer trunk serves as scenery and prop receptacle: I was born in a trunk/In the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho/It was during a matinee on Friday/And they used a makeup towel for my didee… (From A Star is Born.) Each performer delves into it sharing something about his/her past relating back to Garland.
Solo and in groups, singing for the most part originally arranged material, the company is stylishly directed by Scanlan with jaunty choreography by Richard Stafford. Expression and movement are a pleasure to watch.
Recreation of the famous duet featuring 21 year-old Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland by Alysha Umphress and Gabrielle Stravelli creates memorable frisson. “Happy Days Are Here Again” (Milton Ager/ Jack Yellin) and “Get Happy” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler) emerge first slowly, then like an unblocked dam as celebratory voices soar.
Few would take on the challenge of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”( Harold Arlen/EY Harburg), especially in a show where we hear “that voice.” Alysha Umphress puts her own stamp on it. Precise melismatic execution (single syllables or short words sung over several notes) manages to maintain poignancy and focus. It’s quite lovely.
Billy Stritch, Gabrielle Stravelli
“You’re Nearer” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) is rendered like unrolling velvet by Gabrielle Stravelli atop the piano. She’s a beating heart in a good black dress. Sashaying to center stage, the vocalist detonates “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer). Lyrics sail like well trained fireworks. Air must be piped in from below. Clearly the performer is not just a jazz baby.
“The Man That Got Away” (Harold Arlen /Ira Gershwin) arrives in long, heady, rippling notes that spread like fans. Max Von Essen showcases vulnerability, his vocal perhaps richer and more controlled than it’s ever been. “…a one man fella lookin’ for the man that got away,” he sings. Von Essen is an actor and contrastingly adorable during lighthearted duet with Stritch. (A lip-synced parody of Garland goes on too long and doesn’t fit tone.)
Max Von Essen
Aisha De Haas excels with Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler’s “Stormy Weather.” The artist massages lyrics as if physically painful to share. Without a single extraneous gesture, taking her time, she makes the song a scene-in-one, a vocal monologue; a beautifully understated character portrayal.
Billy Stritch can arrange anything; to hear him singing at the piano is a rarer treat. “Cottage for Sale” (Willard Robinson/Larry Conley) is palpably wistful, a tribute to Garland’s individual progeny alights as if to family, a trio of smile songs is tender and infectious.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Billy Stritch, Alysha Umphress, Max Von Essen, Patrick O’Leary, Gabrielle Stravelli, Aisha De Haas, Mark McLean
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Judy on TV!- Celebrating the Judy Garland Show
Artistic Director, Music Director, Arranger/Host – Billy Stritch
Written and Directed by Dick Scanlan
Choreography by Richard Stafford
Billy Stritch-piano, Patrick O’Leary-bass, Mark McLean-drums
Other excellent programs live and streamed: 92Y