Judy Strikes Back
Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space
August 13 – 15
I’ve always been a Judy fan. (That’s Judy Garland not the Judith Wright Centre, though it’s pretty great too, especially with Rogue Spice for dinner just across the road). And so with full knowledge of her life and work, I awaited with anticipation the beginning of a show billed as breathing new life into the Garland legend. As the pre-show tunes took audiences back to a golden age courtesy of songs such as ‘I’ve Got My Girl’ from Gene Kelly’s “An American in Paris”, the singing-along heard from those nearby gave indication that I was not the only one. And equipped with this prior experience it was easy to appreciate the opening sections of the cabaret, “Judy Strikes Back” as Bernadette Meenach, as the iconic songstress explains her beginnings as Francis Gum and launches into her almost autobiographical ‘Born in a Trunk’ number from “A Star is Born”, for as Garland herself once stated “the story of my life is in my songs.”
For those less familiar with the subject matter of this biographical theatre show, there is hint of what she describes as ‘that rainbow song’, both in introduction and throughout the evening. The ruby slippers make appearance too, as heels though and without much purpose. Still, Meenach is a convincing Garland, capturing the songstress’ mannerisms and intonation down to the finest detail. And her vocal delivery shows a similar innate ability to express tormented subtext, even if often best displayed in the non-Garland songs that flesh out the show. Her ‘I am Woman’, for example, provides wonderful showcase of her powerhouse voice. Co-performer Patrick Dwyer, too, shows prowess in duet with Meenach, especially in role as original brat-packer Humphrey Bogart for a show highlight performance of Sinatra’s “That’s Life”.
Although it starts strong, “Judy Strikes Back” soon ebbs and flows in its pacing. Even at 90 minutes rather than its advertised two hour duration, the show is a lengthy one and by Meenach’s scripted admission, there are moments when its pacing lulls, such as when we wait while she transforms into hobo garb for performance with Dwyer of “A Couple of Swells”, the comic song and dance routine Garland performed with Fred Astaire in 1948’s “Easter Parade”, authentic down to the finest details of movement and expression. And the gimmicky interaction of a gate-crashing drag queen Judy wannabe (Dwyer) may result in some funny moments as the two diva off, but ultimately drags on too long and becomes bogged down by poor song choice.
It is from question of ‘why does everyone do Judy’ as she laments her doppelgänger culture, that the show first hints at its ambitious direction and where things ultimately go wrong, for after a momentous show-stopping finale of Garland’s ‘Once in My Lifetime’ song of destiny calling, the show continues with performers shedding their on-stage personas to contemplate society’s fascination with the tragedy of fallen starlets and Meenach’s compulsion to perform in role, as link, I imagine, to Garland’s ‘always be a first–rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else’ mantra.
With its mix of Garland songs and other appropriate inclusions, “Judy Strikes Back” represents a generally good blend of styles. As a tribute show it is quite fine in its presentation of Garland in all of her guises. As also challenge to the nature of tragedy, acting and the positioning of women, it becomes a confusion for audiences to absorb. Ultimately, this is a show of much potential but a sometimes confused identity that doesn’t credit the audience with ability to draw intended conclusions of their own accord and it will be interesting to follow its future directions.