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A CurtainUp Review

I Will Come Back

The press release for I Will Come Back has it right. Judy Garland, the subject of this "musical" was indeed one of this century's most fascinating personalities. And, oh boy, what a voice. Big and strong and velvety and so distinctive you could recognize it after hearing just a few notes.

Now Timothy Gray, who knew and worked with Garland has written and directed this vehicle to bring her back for "one last spectacular stint in the limelight." With Hugh Martin, who co-wrote the famous "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas" , as his collaborator he's even added several new songs for Garland a.k.a. Tommy Femia. Maybe the real Judy could turn numbers like "Two's Company" into hits and have us all humming:
Two is such a cheerful number
Any time, anywhere
One is such a tearful number
Longing so to share
As sung by the Judy on the Players Club stage, however, such speculation becomes wildly optimistic.

Tommy Femia is one of an ever growing cadre of drag performers specializing in interpreting mega stars on stage --some living, like Barbra Streisand and Carol Channing; some dead like Garland and Marlene Dietrich. His Judy is not a literal impersonation though there are moments when he does resemble her and when he even sounds a tad like her. However, those moments are rare and the voice is mostly an out-of-tune reminder of what you can never bring back, or, if you'll forgive the pun, drag back. If Mr. Femia's and Mr. Gray's intent was to create an edgy distinctly original portrait with the aura of the Garland persona, (albeit a somewhat bombed out one), they failed to give I Will Come Back the edge and dialogue needed to bring off their ambition.

While Femia has apparently done Judy stints in other settings, he simply isn't up to carrying a whole show on his shoulders, especially one with such a thin gruel of a book. The patter that should enliven the show consists largely of the trite and much told -- memories of Judy's childhood on the MGM lot mildly seasoned with the names of a few famous schoolmates in the studio schoolroom. Reminiscences about her numerous husbands are equally familiar and lacking in bite.

The production tries hard to be a real musical instead of an extended cabaret routine. Leo Meyer's television studio set is lit with considerable pizazz by Jen Acomb. It features an effective ornate frame at stage right for Judy's entrances and exits and a scrim behind which three live musicians are amusingly accompanied by moving cartoon-y cardboard musicians.

If I haven't mentioned the rest of the cast -- this is after all billed as a musical -- it's because there is none. Unless you want to count the mini appearance of Kristine Zbornik as a stand-in for a no-show Barbra Streisand on Judy's TV show. She and the recorded voice of the real Judy in a duet with her alter ego provide the only numbers of the evening that don't end off key. Yet one featured performer hardly lifts this beyond one-person show to the level of musical . The singularly ugly, garish orange dress Marc Bouwer has created for Ms. Zbornik seems designed to make Judy-Tommy's glitzy wardrobe glitter more brightly.

Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray are talented musicians whose High Spirits a musical adaptation of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit I'll be reviewing later this June when it opens the Berkshire Theatre Festival's first season under the helm of its new artistic director Kate Maguire. They were clearly devoted Garland friends as well as colleagues. No doubt Tommy Femia shares their devotion to the star. Too bad that the moments when this triple devotion really shines through are as rare as those bluebirds flying somewhere over the rainbow.

Before closing, I should report that contrary to this reviewer's reaction there were a number of people in the audience who laughed loud and clapped vigorously throughout the evening. They obviously did not feel $45 too steep a price for a one-person show (in a venue with the tightest seasts in town) impersonating a musical.

Written and directed by Timothy Gray
Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Mr. Gray
Starring Tommy Femia with Kristine Zbornik
Musical director: David Malocco
Sets: Leo Meyer
Lighting: Jen Acomb
Sound: Robert Kaplowitz
Costumes: Mark Bouwer
Players, 115 MacDougal St. (212/239-6200
2/10/98; opens 2/25/98

Reviewed 2/28/98 by Elyse Sommer
Closing 4/26/98!

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