Sunday, July 15, 2007

Connie Champagne IS Judy Garland!

We are all on this Earth for such a brief time that it’s vital we waste absolutely none of it. A friend of mine just saw a show in New York and wrote to me saying “that’s two hours I’ll never get back.” On the other hand, there are theatrical experiences one has where the time you invest is repaid with interest: they persist in memory, and you recall them with pleasure, reliving the wonder or the laughter or the insight the performers gave you while you sat in the dark.

Connie Champagne’s latest effort, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” in which she appears as Judy Garland, is just such a magical theatrical experience. Playing now in the tiny Theater 3 at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theater Center, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” transports you into a world where Judy Garland is alive, well – and still completely in love with music and performing. This is Judy Garland as if aging had been suspended, but time continued to roll on, and Judy discovered new songs that she could make her own. If Judy lived, wouldn’t it make sense for her to do highly dramatic, highly theatrical numbers? Of course – and though you might not think of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as fitting within the Garland oeuvre, they sound exactly like the sort of thing she ought to have done had she lived.

Champagne and her creative team draw from a wide variety of contemporary music, from Tom Waits to Neil Finn to Janis Ian (a touching interpretation of a song I didn’t know, “When I Lay Down”) to modern Broadway tunes from “Grey Gardens,” “Nine” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” And they become perfect songs for Judy.

This may be the most brilliant bit of theater I’ve seen since “I Am My Own Wife.” The brilliance comes from Ms. Champagne’s imagination (and that of her collaborators, director F. Allen Sawyer and musical director Joe Collins) in the invention of a Judy Garland that is at once classic and completely contemporary. A character that is brimming with vivacity, yet still wounded and insecure in the way Garland was. (A brief note: though I certainly appreciate the genius of Judy Garland, I would never call myself a true “fan.”)

Champagne’s impersonation of Garland isn’t precise – but it’s perfect nonetheless. Having recently watched several episodes of Garland’s TV show from the 60s (I’m not a Garland fan, but I live with one), there are gestures and physical ways of being that I think are missing from this show. But at its heart, Champagne’s performance is essentially true, which I think is some of the highest praise that can be given to any work of art. For the entire evening, I felt as if Garland herself, still hungry for the stage, had managed to project her essence into Connie Champagne in order to get just another hour or two in the spotlight.
Of course in one sense, the truth of Garland lies in artifice: she gave the public all she had, but ultimately her stage persona was still a work of art, and it is this tension between genuineness and artifice that made “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” so compelling to me. Champagne gave us a rare treat – a visit from a Judy Garland who would look at modern life and music in the way she might have had she been able to catch some real magic and stay 44 for ever.

I took in the Connie Champagne show on Friday, and followed it up with a similar sort of show on Saturday: “Kiki and Herb: Alive From Broadway!” Kiki and Herb are Justin Bond and Kenny Melman, a San Francisco duo that made it to Broadway with a show based on their creation, a boozy chanteuse and her “homosexual Jew ‘tard” pianist. Kiki is supposed to be in her 70s, I believe. Yet, like Connie’s incarnation of Judy, she’s not stuck in the past, and loves finding contemporary numbers to perform.

Unlike Connie Champagne, “Kiki and Herb” is ALL about artifice and irony and winking knowingness. There’s no sincerity here – that wouldn’t be hip. But when it comes right down to it, sincerity is what you need – on some level at least – to truly connect with an audience. And that is where Connie Champagne delivers.

Kiki and Herb you can skip – but don’t miss Connie Champagne as Judy Garland in “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

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