Dear Miss Garland
"Judy was born in a trunk and grew up in show business. I was born in Medford and grew up in Stoneham." And so begins the fan letter/musical revue/celebrity impersonation that is Kathy St. George’s "Dear Miss Garland," now being revived at the Stoneham Theatre.
Local favorite St. George ultimately delivers an entertaining evening, but it has more to do with St. George’s charm and the enduring brilliance of the material - songs written for Garland by some of the 20th century greatest songwriters - than to the revue as written.
"Dear Miss Garland" is St. George’s stage love letter to Judy Garland. While the first act centers on St. George’s reminiscences of Garland’s life and performances, the second act does go full-on celebrity concert, with St. George as Garland performing many of the numbers of famous Carnegie Hall concert. That second half is stellar, with St. George, backed by a hot band under the direction of Jim Rice, ripping through classics from "Chicago" (which St. George makes an especially hot toddlin’ town), "Almost Like Being in Love" and the politically incorrect but toe-tapping "Swanee."
While St. George doesn’t quite live up to Garland’s edge-of-desperation, raw performance standard, she does conjure the spirit of Garland, doing pitch perfect mimics of Garland’s physical and vocal tics -- that constant running of the hand through the chic, short ’do, the hand grazing a cheek as it stretches skyward on a power note. She also gets at Garland’s manic energy, particularly in some bouncy fancy footwork during "Get Happy" and gets close to Garland’s need to be loved during a touching "Over the Rainbow."
But there are moments when "Dear Miss Garland" stumbles. St. George doesn’t quite have the vocal stamina to get through all of "Get Happy," making the song seem just long, not show-stopping. And the show chooses to go past a perfect emotional closing point, that lovely "Over the Rainbow" and mention of Garland’s demise, overstaying its welcome by another two songs.
Then there’s that problematic first act.
Set in a purposely cartoonish dressing room, Act One veers too much in tone, with St. George recounting points in Garland’s life (a couple of interesting anecdotes but less deep than a Wikipedia entry) and some of her favorite memories of Garland (frequently too corny). In this act, stripped of amplification and with only piano accompaniment, St. George’s vocal attempts at impersonation with songs like "The Trolley Song" miss the mark.
Her brief, mini-spoken impersonations remain sharply observed, although that swerving back and forth between St. George being St. George and being Garland make for choppy pacing. It doesn’t help that lighting designer Karen Perlow chooses to finish a ballad in a pin spot, then fading to black. With no set or costume change, this is a strange effect to do once, even odder to do several times, such as during a medley of songs from "Meet Me From St. Louis," one of Garland’s signature MGM musicals.
A duet with Rice on "How About You" (from the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland flick "Babes on Broadway") is sweetly done, but the thrown in modern references to George Clooney and Jon Stewart feel jarring.
The first act really gels when St. George isn’t trying to be anybody but St. George, letting her own warm voice shine through, with "It Never Was You" (a great Kurt Weill ballad that was a Garland standard). Singing with restraint but still conveying a lot of emotion, St. George delivers a melancholy "Me and My Shadow," featuring some subtle period choreography from Ilyse Robbins.
Perhaps, if "Dear Miss Garland" had committed its first half to being about Garland’s life and performances (excising St. George’s personal spin), it would have made for a more cohesive show. Or St. George and director Scott Edmiston could have focused the act entirely on St. George -- how she viewed Garland, experienced her recordings, movies, television specials, how it affected St. George as a performer in her own right. This could have set up the second half in a way where this concert section appeared to burst out of St. George’s love for Garland.
There’s a missed scenic moment at the top of the second act, where a transformation might have been as magical as the music that follows it: St. George with a shopping cart showing off her Garland memorabilia, including that Carnegie Hall concert double LP, segueing into the live band playing the overture from that famous concert.
Unfortunately, the live band is in full view that entire shopping cart moment. If the band had been revealed just as they struck up that glorious music, and if St. George’s transformation into Garland had taken place on stage, the two acts could have connected, underscoring St. George’s artistic connection to her idol. Instead, "Dear Miss Garland" is a series of fragments followed by one hell of a concert.
"Dear Miss Garland" continues through July 22 at the Stoneham Theatre on Main Street in Stoneham. For more info you can go to the company’s website.