Before I give my thoughts on the concert, allow me to recommend Bombay Eats on W 52nd Street. I found it via Citysearch.com, and we tried it for our pre-show dinner. We were a little skeptical when it turned out we were the only in-house customers, but they seem to have a thriving delivery business, and once we got past the Bollywood-meets-Bayonne diner atmosphere and the mysterious way that everything cost a dollar more than listed on the menu, we were delighted to sample some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. I generally have no cause to be in that neighbourhood, but I might make excuses sometimes to get back to their coconut naan and barbecued eggplant.
Now, on with the show…
First things first: Rufus Wainwright is no Judy Garland. We all know that. Even if you are a big fan of his, like Mrs. Nator is, you would have to agree that comparing his voice and performance style to hers is an apple-oranges exercise. He doesn’t have her power, precision or projection (acoustically or emotionally speaking), but neither is he as overwhelming as she could be. He does have a sweet tenor that evokes weary longing and, it must be said, big balls for taking on this project. Despite his frequent forays into egotistical hyperbole in interviews, however, he has the grace to know he’s stepping into some big shoes. He even acknowledged this at one point in performance, noting “I can’t believe this is happening… okay, get it together, own it,” to the laughter and applause of the audience.
The audience did a lot of laughing and applauding. In fact, it would be fair to say that the mostly gay crowd, with a fair number of older straight folks and younger women who seized the opportunity to dress up (including Mrs. Nator) were exceptionally giddy even before Wainwright took the stage. After all, just the chance to hear amazing standards performed by a 36-piece orchestra in Carnegie Hall is a recipe for fun, almost regardless of who the singer is. Add to that Wainwright’s worshipful following and the gay, camp, homage-to-Judy factor and, despite high expectations, it would be hard for him to go wrong. But Rufus went beyond that: he proved himself an excellent entertainer, sometimes powerful, sometimes funny, but able to pull off an old-school performance with impressive aplomb.
Mind you, there were some rough spots. Moments when he forgot the words were a bit unexpected, considering the preparation it was rumoured had gone into the show, but his amusing ad-libbed covers could be considered evocations of Judy, herself, provided you imagined him slopping a cocktail around in one hand as he delivered them. Not so forgivable were the bungled attempt to sing one song in the original key, as his overtaxed falsetto meandered off-tune, or his forgetting most of the names of the band mid-introduction, which came off as plain tacky, and made one wonder if he was having a Tina moment of memory loss. But, despite having a thinner voice than Garland’s, he clearly had been working on it, and was able to bring to many songs a sustained power and evocative delivery that made even the skeptics whoop.
In Judy’s tradition, Rufus included family in the program, welcoming his folk-star mother, Kate McGarrigle, to the stage to accompany him twice (leading to perhaps one of the best exchanges of the evening, when he, sitting coyly at the edge of the stage, asked his lamé-covered progenitor what she had to say for herself, and she replied “I feel line Céline Dion,” provoking him to moan “oh, mother”). He also brought on Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft for a duet (Liza was not in the building), which was great fun (although her voice made one muse on how Judy’s might have sounded had she lived longer, and showed how much hers, at twice his age, overpowered his), and his sister, Martha Wainwright, to do a solo rendition of Stormy Weather. Martha was an excellent surprise for me, as, although I’d not been impressed with clips I’d heard of her album and the sometimes too-histrionic poses she struck while singing, she growled out an affecting, woman-on-the-verge version of the song, pretty much blowing the roof off the joint. Mrs. Nator was not as beguiled as I, although upon further conversation it seemed that this was due to her belief that, as a woman, Martha couldn’t do camp so much as go through it to poor impression – not to mention Mrs. N really wanted to hear Rufus do the tune. I however, thought this argument specious, and, while acknowledging that the timbre of her voice was not prime jazz singer material, had to give kudos to Martha for knowing her instrument and controlling it superbly.
All this aside, most of Rufus’ renditions were well-done and well-received, with the excellent band whizzing through the knockout, original 1961 arrangements. Show-stopping numbers included the favourites most associated with Judy, such as The Trolley Song and the breast-beating The Man That Got Away. His quieter moments with mere piano accompaniment, however, were sometimes even more moving.
So, my final verdict? The show was definitely a success, although I think I might be happier to see a more traditional singer doing the standards with the band, and to go to a concert where Rufus sings his own songs. It was well worth the trip (especially to see the delight in Mrs. Nator’s eyes), and I had an excellent time, despite frequent mini-panic attacks inspired by the vertiginous rake of the stairs in Ye Gods section of the Hall (note to self: do not watch ladies in high heels tottering down those too-steep stairs again, unless you want a sudden white streak in your hair). Wainwright may not have been the best choice to commemorate Judy vocally, but he had the guts to do it, the talent to do it fairly well, and the gayitude to make it fun. You can’t go wrong with that.
P.S.: Norah Jones is so over that she was in Ye Gods, too, and Sarah Jessica Parker wears around 6 inches of pancake makeup. Pass it on! </bitter queen voice>