Get Happy!

Get Happy! – A play about Judy Garland written and performed by Debbie Saloman

Brendan McCormack (Musical Director and Keyboards)
Jules Fenton (drums)
Adam Zane – Director

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 12 August, 2007
Venue: The King’s Head, Islington, London

Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922 and died 47 years later in London. She had a short and sometimes-troubled life but, with her extraordinary talents as a singer and actress, she quickly found early success. However, she also found it hard coping with public adulation which formed a huge contrast to her unhappy private life. She also suffered from having been prescribed drugs as a teenager movie star at MGM, something that probably clouded the rest of her public life. Had she not worn herself out on the treadmill of Hollywood and through a busy singing career, she may well have been celebrating her 85th-birthday this year.

Both Garland’s parents were vaudeville performers so, naturally enough, Frances and her two siblings went into show-business, as The Gumm Sisters. Later on, the entertainer, producer and songwriter George Jessel renamed them The Garland Sisters and then Frances became Judy. The act was finished when one of the sisters married and Judy struck out on her own. In short films from 1929 Louis B. Mayer at MGM eventually gave her a contract. Her first major screen appearance was in “Every Sunday” with Deanna Durbin. “Pigskin Parade” followed (at 20th Century Fox) and then she returned to MGM for “Broadway Melody of 1938” in which she famously sang ‘You made me love you’ to a photograph of Clark Gable. After “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry”, the first of her many films with Mickey Rooney, she landed the part of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” which made the little girl with the big voice into a world-wide star. Enter ‘Over the rainbow’, a song that was to haunt her for the rest of her life. She had an up and down career in movies but the ups, such as “The Wizard of Oz”, “Babes in Arms”, “For me and my gal”, “Girl crazy”, “Meet me in St Louis”, “The Clock”, “The Harvey girls”, “Easter Parade” and in particular “A Star is Born” far outweigh the downs, proving that Garland was the most gifted film actress and singer of her generation.

In her one-woman show on Garland Debbie Saloman prefers to show the positive side of Garland’s career rather than the more tragic aspects of a showbiz life that the press always had a tendency to emphasise. The setting is a rehearsal room at the EMI studios in Manchester Square in London in 1960. Recovering from a bout of hepatitis, she is staying with her friend Dirk Bogarde and, as she recuperates, she decides she wants to sing in London, so a concert is booked for her at the London Palladium. As she rehearses she tells the audience what it’s like to be Judy Garland. Warned by her doctor not to drink – she had a penchant for vodka – she sticks instead just to “Blue Nun” wine, which she believes will do her no harm at all and, anyway, as she says, “a singer has to keep the voice lubricated.”

The second half of the show finds her in a night-club celebrating after the huge success of her London Palladium show – a repeat performance was booked immediately – and looking forward to a concert tour culminating in her famous Carnegie Hall appearance the following year.Wilful, opinionated, infuriating and a nightmare to work with, Judy was, nevertheless, an immensely talented performer and a very funny lady. Of that there is no doubt but it was sometimes difficult to get her in the right place, be it on the stage or on a film set, at the right time and she was often sacked for being unreliable, but then with Judy you couldn’t nurture a great talent and be an uncomplicated person as well. In live performances she looked wired and twitchy, constantly on the move, using the microphone lead almost as a security prop, something into which she could channel all that excess nervous energy. She patently lived on her nerves, but then she also lived on her wits. Saloman captures all of these aspects of Garland’s performance with unnerving brilliance.

For the Act One rehearsal scene Judy arrives early which surprises even her, and she admits: “I might lose my bad reputation”. Through her monologue and the songs that Judy made her own, Saloman not only re-creates this magnificent talent with a taste for wit and humorous put-downs, but also shows what an exceptional actress she is herself. She is blessed, like Garland, with a big belter of a voice that can put across numbers like ‘Stormy weather;’ ‘When you’re smiling’ and ‘The man that got away’, and like Judy, make you feel drained as well as elated. When performing, Judy probably felt safe from all the worries of her life away from the stage. She had a terrible father, called her mother “the wicked witch of the west”, went through five husbands, usually choosing the most unsuitable men for someone of her temperament, had money problems and battled with drink and medication addiction, whereas on the stage she just had all that audience adulation to cope with. The contrast would probably kill anybody half-normal, but then Judy was no normal human being: she belonged to the world and everybody wanted a piece of her.

Many performers have ‘done’ Garland – Judy Davis, Caroline O’Connor, Jane Horrocks, Lesley Mackie and, of course, Jim Bailey and, to a certain extent, Rufus Wainwright. To that illustrious list must now be added Debbie Saloman, who really gets to the heart of the woman with all the signature gestures and the pent-up energy ready to burst forth. It is an amazing performance and, when she launches into a medley of ‘You made me love you’, ‘For me and my gal’ and ‘The trolley song’ in those celebrated arrangements, it is like being transported back to Carnegie Hall on the night of 23 April 1961.

“Get Happy!” is returned to the King’s Head by popular demand. Don’t miss, because another star is born.

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