By Barry Reszel
Despite its somewhat misleading (and very long) title, Judy & Liza—Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert—A Tribute, it’s the unmistakable honesty from three exceptional talents that make this production at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater a true delight.
This isn’t so much a full-fledged tribute concert as it is a live documentary narrated by two singer/actor/fans discussing their icons and then transforming into them for the singing. It’s all centered on the 1964 concert actually performed when Judy Garland was 42 and her daughter, Liza Minnelli, was just 18.
And so the incomparable Nancy Hays plays herself during the narration and Garland for the singing; the lovely Alexa Castelvecchi performs similar double duty for Minnelli. Critics can debate the merits of this particular construct, but what patrons need to know is that the music carries this production. Audiences get a feel of what it would have been like to hear this mother-daughter powerhouse duo in the company of just 50 or so of their closest friends.
With the impeccable Robert Ollis handling the musical direction and some reorchestrations (and support of two fine musicians, Tony Scandora on percussion and Corbin Anderson on saxophone and clarinet), the bevy of music (some 34 songs within 24 arrangements) is really interrupted only for pacing and context. Through dialogue, both actors detail their fixations with their alter egos, but it’s when their singing becomes morphing that patrons feel true insight into Judy, Liza and their relationship with one another.
The production leads with “Once In A Lifetime,” “Just In Time” and “Gypsy In My Soul.” It continues with favorites like “Together Wherever We Go,” “Who’s Sorry Now” and a lovely duet mashup of “Smile/When You’re Smiling.” An act one highlight is the terrific medley sung by Castelvecchi featuring “Take Me Along,” “Tea for Two,” “They Can’t Take That way From Me” and “My Mammy.”
Act two begins with “Two Lost Souls,” a terrific duet of “When The Saints” and “Brotherhood of Man,” another lovely mother/daughter mashup and favorites like “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and more. Hays, fabulous throughout, is particularly poignant in her late act two renditions of “Make Someone Happy,” “San Francisco” and “Over the Rainbow.” These two captivating performers end with a “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again” duet and an encore rendition of “Chicago.”
Concert? Documentary? Let each patron make his/her/their own call. Worth it? There’s no debate. Let Judy & Liza allow Chicagoland to get away from 2020, if only for a couple hours.
Greenhouse Theater Center and Nancy Hays Entertainment, Inc. present “Judy & Liza—Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert—A Tribute” through April 5 at 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.