The glamour and glitz of Vaudeville brought joy in a derelict church in Liverpool on an Autumn evening.
Judy and Liza is a musical homage and biopic of these giants of the big screen and stage Judy Garland, played by Helen Sheals (Mrs Wigan from Downton Abbey) and Liza Minnelli played by Emma Dears (West End singer/actress who also created the show).
The show explores through songs, memories and anecdotes, the talents and turbulence of this mother and daughter relationship as they leaf through the family photo album. There is such a richness of songs between the two that the difficulty was which numbers to leave out.
It starts with Garland’s childhood. She was born the youngest of three daughters to Frank and Ethel Gumm, who had their own movie theatre and were keen to introduce their daughters to the stage. Young Frances joined the Gumm Sisters as soon as she was old enough and the group eventually changed their name to the Garland Sisters and Frances chose to change her name to Judy.
Judy’s mother was determined to get her into the movies and took her to MGM Studios where she caught the eye of Louis Mayer. But the young Judy was told that she did not have the classic movie star looks and this impacted on her self-esteem from which she would never really recover. She was put on pills and a diet and this was where her anxiety about her looks developed.
She was matched with fellow child star Micky Rooney before landing her part in the Wizard of Oz at the age of sixteen. Garland was the lowest paid cast member on the movie which had numerous set disasters and went through three directors. However, the film became a huge success and MGM Studios were keen to hold onto Garland. The studios did not like her marrying David Rose, her first of five husbands, at the age of nineteen and they pressured her into having an abortion. The marriage lasted just eighteen months.
We follow Judy through movies including Meet Me in St Louis, where she meets Vincente Minnelli and after initial conflict they marry and have the baby who grows to be Liza. However, Judy’s insecurities begin to surface again along with addiction to pills and she is admitted to a sanitorium. After six years Judy and Vincente divorce and share custody of Liza.
Judy remarries and decides to put Liza on stage at the age of eleven. The young Liza is a natural and at the age of sixteen she announces to her mother that she too would like a life in show business. Garland responds by refusing to fund her daughter’s career as an act of ‘tough love’. Minnelli had watched her mother taken to the brink but was still undeterred in following in her footsteps.
It’s not long before Liza is the rising star, winning an Oscar for her performance in Cabaret. Minnelli went on to have four husbands and in this play she laments her inability to have a child.
Garland’s poor health continued but she had to keep on working in an attempt to pay off debts. At the age of forty-seven she died of an ‘accidental overdose’ in London after being married to her fifth husband for just one month.
The stories are interspersed with classic songs including Maybe This Time, Cabaret, The Trolley Song, Together Wherever We Go and the obligatory Over the Rainbow.
Each number is performed with panache and sparkle. The most evocative are those songs which simply feature piano accompaniment and Dears’ voice was faultless throughout. There is good interaction between the two, the pace of the show is good and the whole evening is a marvellous mixture of camp, tragedy and razzamatazz.
Reviewer: Bob Towers
Reviewed: 18th September 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★