Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Conjuring Judy Garland

The New York Times

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June 15, 2006
Music Review | Rufus Wainwright

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Conjuring Judy Garland

They came to commune with a legend and to pay their respects to the singer channeling her.

“They” would be the heavily gay, male, over-30 audience at the sold-out Carnegie Hall last night and tonight; the legend would be Judy Garland; and the gawky, flouncing pop shaman conjuring her would be Rufus Wainwright, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter and opera maven descended from folk-rock royalty.

It didn’t matter that Mr. Wainwright sounds nothing like Garland or that his voice, an astringent drone with a quavering edge, uncertain intonation and slightly garbled diction, isn’t half as good an instrument as Garland’s.

The spirit was there. At the very least, his loving song-by-song recreation of “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” Garland’s brilliant 1961 concert that became the most beloved of all pre-rock concert albums, was a fabulous stunt. Not even Madonna, pop music’s ultimate pop provocateur, has attempted anything so ambitious.

What unfolded onstage was a tour de force of politically empowering performance art in which a proudly gay male performer paid homage to the original and longest-running gay icon in the crowded pantheon of pop divas. Accompanying Mr. Wainwright was a 36-piece orchestra conducted by Stephen Oremus playing the original 1961 arrangements transposed several notes lower to suit his voice.

The concert was a two-family affair, with the Garland clan represented by Lorna Luft, who arrived onstage late in the 2½-hour marathon to put her seal of approval on the project by joining Mr. Wainwright in a duet of “After You’ve Gone.”

Besides Rufus, the Wainwrights were represented by his sister Martha, who brought down the house with a whooping and swooping “Stormy Weather,” and his mother, Kate McGarrigle, who accompanied him on piano during “Over the Rainbow,” and in an encore of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” that’s not on the Garland album.

Because Garland’s stamina onstage was legendary, Mr. Wainwright biggest challenge was to build and sustain the kind of electrical connection between performer and audience that in Garland’s case approached a vampirish symbiosis.

If Mr. Wainwright doesn’t begin to convey emotional extremes Garland embodied like a great method actress, he, like Garland, is a natural clown and showman. One of his many amusing anecdotes described his childhood identification with “The Wizard of Oz.” On good days, he was Dorothy and on bad ones, the Wicked Witch of the West.

For those who came to worship, Mr. Wainwright could do no wrong. His courage to stand as a surrogate for every audience member who ever gazed into the mirror and fantasized slipping into Dorothy’s ruby slippers spoke for itself.



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