We've been enjoying Tommy Femia's ever-evolving renditions of Judy Garland for years. His long running series of shows, Saturday nights at 11pm at Don't Tell Mama, has become a mecca for both Judy fans and cabaret regulars--not that those two groups are mutually exclusive!
With the help of his musical director David Maiocco, Femia continues to belt out numbers with the same unbridled passion for which his idol (and ours) was famous. We're sorry to report, however, that his pitch is "Over the Rainbow" far too often; Femia misses notes more than occasionally. It's been an ongoing problem in recent years; happily, there were fewer clams on this occasion than during the last two Tommy/Judy shows we caught. Make no mistake: We haven't seen anyone else manage to extract so much humor from an impersonation of a star while delivering the music with full-throttled seriousness. Still, if Femia doesn't take proper care of his instrument, he risks losing his fan base. Simply put, Tommy Femia remains the best Judy Garland impersonator (male or female) we've ever seen, but he could be--and should be--even better.
Femia broke new ground some time ago when his Judy started to sing new songs in her unique style. No longer was this show simply an hommage; it became something much more audacious. He's still doing that sort of thing but with more mixed results. Judy singing "Fifty Percent" (from Ballroom) is an inspired choice because it's the sort of emotional powder keg that suits her style. But Femia also has Judy do "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which sounds silly coming out of her mouth. If he played this bit for comedy, it might work, but he has Judy deliver the number more or less straight. What was he thinking? As for comedy, however, Judy's winking version of "Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits is inspired.
Though the quick-witted Femia can be sensationally funny when he kibitzes with the audience, in recent shows--including the one we saw last Saturday night--he wasn't nearly as playful in this manner as he used to be. Yet his prepared patter is consistently sharp and hilarious. (When Judy introduced the evening's guest star, she casually excused herself from the stage by announcing that she had to go and let Lorna out of her cage. The crowd roared.)
After Judy's exit, the audience was left in very capable hands. Seattle's Jonathan Frank, in his Don't Tell Mama debut, took command of the room with stylish ease. He captured the nostalgia-oriented patrons immediately with his patter about a tune cut from Billy Wilder's original film version of Sunset Boulevard; then he proceeded to sing this fascinating lost song, titled "The Paramount-Doesn't-Want-Me Blues," with a sly sense of humor and a warm, pleasing voice.
A few years ago, we came upon Frank's CD Sleeping in the Arms of Love, and this lush, romantic album has been one of our favorites ever since. We had never seen Frank perform live until the other night, and we were utterly charmed despite the fact that he didn't sing any of the ballads familiar to us. His second song as Judy's guest star was the rarely performed "A Wonderful Way to Die," a darkly comic Schmidt and Jones number that he put over with élan. Femia has a well-deserved reputation for offering terrific guest stars and, with Jonathan Frank, he came through yet again; we look forward to seeing Frank perform a show of his own.
When "Judy" reclaimed the stage, she did so with spirit. Her rendition of "I'm Still Here" from Follies was terrific. And even if some of the notes got away from her during "The Man That Got Away," you had to admire the fiery performance of the song. Tommy Femia is undeniably talented and he infuses Judy with his own spark of musical divinity. It's just that his franchise needs some vocal refurbishing and, perhaps, a fresh look at what works in the act and what does not.