By Harry Forbes
On the occasion of what would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday, here it seemed was the lady once again bringing the house to its feet multiple times this past Saturday at the venue of her legendary triumph back in 1961.
Of course, it wasn’t really the late Garland herself but rather a phenomenal British performer named Debbie Wileman. Nor for that matter, was it the Stern auditorium on which stage Judy actually performed that legendary night six decades ago, but the adjoining and prestigious concert hall underneath.
Still, the sold-out house greeted Wileman’s first entrance as if it were the second coming of Judy herself and her performance didn’t disappoint. She opened with Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” a song which, needless to say, Garland didn’t live to perform. The recreation of Garland’s vocal timbre was uncannily accurate right from the start. The “Follies” song also opens Wileman’s tie-in CD, consisting almost entirely of songs Garland never actually sang, wonderfully orchestrated, conducted and produced by Grammy Award-winning Steve Orich, with Wileman channeling the inimitable Garland style on each track.
Michele Lee, Renee Taylor, and Tracie Bennett (who played Judy in “End of the Rainbow” on Broadway) were among the celebrities cheering on Wileman, as was former Garland beau John Mayer who received a warm introduction from Wileman before she sang one of the memorable songs he wrote for Garland: “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning.”
The UK-based singer and actress created a social media sensation on Facebook when she posted songs by Garland and other singers during the pandemic. The Zankel Hall performance marked her New York debut after performances in London. In addition, her U.S. tour included Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Provincetown, and Los Angeles.
Impressive as her homemade videos are, seeing her in person is even more remarkable. The strong-voiced Wileman is quite the phenomenon, summoning Garland better than any impressionist I’ve ever seen. And with plenty of stage presence of her own.
What sets Wileman further apart from many of the Garland impersonators of the past is the genuine quality of her voice, the solid musicianship of her approach, and the sensitive interpretation of the lyrics. She was given superlative accompaniment from Music Director Ron Abel, and a first-rate band including Jack Cavari (guitar), Robert Cookman (synthesizer), Ritt Henn (Bass), Ben Kono (saxophone), Ray Marchica (drums), and Kurt Marcum (trumpet).
On her first entrance, one thought she might “do” Garland all evening, but wisely, after the first couple of numbers, she spoke with her own English accent in a charming and down-to-earth manner, only sporadically mimicking Judy for some spoken patter. And as with her singing, her impression of Garland’s speaking cadence was spot-on accurate.
The program was most sensibly laid out with Garland evergreens alternating with some of the new songs featured on the album. This is the Garland of the 1960’s, the voice a bit frayed at the edges, but strong and dynamic. Wileman captures Garland’s unique timbre so well that the occasional word, phrase or stage movement that slightly misses the mark stands out. But those moments were surprisingly rare.
Wileman gave us a satisfying taste of what Garland’s “Mame” might have sounded like if she had gotten the role she coveted. Wileman offered splendid versions of “It’s Today” and “If He Walked into My Life.” And, arguably, even more impressive were Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” sung quite plausibly in the Garland style. There was also a quite brilliant arrangement of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with a musical counterpoint of “You Go to My Head.” The most intimate number was “A Foggy Day,” sung to Abel’s piano accompaniment, feelingly vocalized.
By the time, she belted out the “You Made Me Love You/“For Me & My Gal”/”Trolley Song” and “Almost Like Being in Love”/”This Can’t Be Love” medleys, two of Garland’s Carnegie Hall classics, Wileman and Garland seemed to be truly one. And the satisfyingly predictable “Over the Rainbow” encore, sung as authentically as all the rest, clinched the transformation. (Incidentally, Wileman recorded that song for her album on the MGM studio where Garland sang the song for “The Wizard of Oz” soundtrack.)
(Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue; June 25th)
(top): Joseph Marzullo
(bottom) Hernan Rodriguez