Nina-Ferro-as-Judy-Garland-photo-by-Ross-GreenJudy Garland’s role as Dorothy in MGM’s classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) set her on a path to acclaim for her acting and singing, and international stardom. Such exposure can come with a cost, and history shows that stars often find life more manageable with chemical assistance.

Unfortunately, Garland eventually found the limits of this strategy. We glimpse this on her tour “Down Under” in Judy Australia 1964, a theatrical outing with high-quality musical performances.

Long regarded as a gay icon, Ms Garland might well be fair game for a festival like Midsumma. We have a local slice of her story (written by Bill Farr) because Australian promoter Harry M Miller (played here by Matt Hetherington) convinced Garland (Nina Ferro) to visit for three shows in May 1964.

The first act concerns Garland’s arrival in Sydney, and her two shows there. The audience were treated to a selection of the star’s well-known tunes. Interspersed with these were Miller’s accounts of difficulties securing the tour, and the triumph of the first concert at Sydney stadium, despite Garland’s reservations and snide asides about being here.

Acting as a narrator of the off-stage action, Miller reported his star client’s dissatisfaction, her partying ways, and what that could mean for the tour. Yet, this is all handled so breezily, and Ferro’s vocals are (aside from one deliberate moment much later) never less than faultless.

Based on Ferro’s performance, those Sydney shows must have shown Ms Garland to be a high-functioning addict of the highest order – one in complete control of her instrument as she belted out the tunes with power and precision.

A Midsumma audience might find themselves reaching the interval having heard good music with only the barest whisper of drama about it, and not so much insight into the tour.

We could also quibble that at times the piano was a little buried in the mix, and that some of the lighting changes didn’t achieve very much.

Yet, the quality of vocals from Ferro, with Heatherington’s confident supporting cameos are enjoyable. Under conductor Phillipa Edwards, the seven-piece band cover Garland’s hits, effectively navigating the shifts from melancholic to hopeful. So, despite its limitations, we can genuinely feel that there is something special here.

The lack of gravity around the sketched narrative in the second act, concerning the Melbourne concert which started an hour late, started to become unintentionally comical. Our Ms Garland was still performing well, and it seemed quite incredible that her knocking over a chair would cause a walkout. By this stage there seemed little doubt that we were watching a slender “Jukebox Musical”.

What a surprise it was that Ferro, starting without a microphone on Somewhere Over the Rainbow, would finally show that Garland wasn’t in fact a super-woman, but that she was tired and fragile. This is the kind of moment that could quickly bring a comfortable audience to the point of tears.

This brief flicker shows that, with some more thought about the story arc, this show could deliver much more insight and emotional punch. Sure, plenty of people like a jukebox musical. But it’s easy to feel that Judy Australia 1964, with its assembled talent, could be much more than this.

Commendations to the team who produced the show’s programme, as the press clippings and photos here are useful in deepening our understanding of the events of May 1964. One could argue that inclusion of such source material in the show would be of benefit.

There are not any plans to tour, which is unfortunate with Perth’s “Fringe World” on now and Adelaide Fringe looming. It seems very likely that such audiences would enjoy the music on offer here.

National Theatre, 20 Carlisle Street, St Kilda
Performance: Saturday 11 February 2023 – 2.00pm
Performances: 10 – 11 February 2023
Information: www.skunkworksproductions.com.au

Image: Nina Ferro as Judy Garland – photo by Ross Green

Review: Jason Whyte