Lorna Luft
Lorna Luft
Despite a topsy-turvy family life, it seems that Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft really loved their parents. Some years ago, I caught Minnelli on Minnelli -- Liza's tribute to her film director father, Vincente -- at the Palace in New York. Last night, half-sister Lorna conjured up the phantom of their famous mother, Judy Garland, in the cozy cabaret-type show Songs My Mother Taught Me at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.

For two hours, the loving and dutiful daughter reminds audiences of the gift we all lost in 1969 -- one we can recapture at our local record and video stores or on cable channels when Judy's powerful voice pulsates through our home entertainment systems. Although Lorna was not blessed with the kind of Talent with a "T" that Liza with a "Z" inherited, this evening is not about her -- as a show starring Liza would be -- but an opportunity to hold aloft the torch that her mother handed to her.

Luft has a lovely voice, appropriate for lounge acts or intimate arenas such as the Canon. She refers to her mother as a guardian angel and, throughout the evening, the spirit of Judy encircles the audience. During the program, Luft spotlights Judy's greatest moments with selections including "Smile," "Just in Time," and a song that Harold Arlen wrote specifically for Judy: "The Man That Got Away." If her rendition lacks resonance, Luft's genuine reverence for Garland's magical voice pulls her through. And she does manage to make some of the songs her own, such as the brassy "Birth of the Blues" and "Chicago (That Toddling Town)."

The most touching number of the evening is Jerry Herman's "Time Heals Everything": Luft belts out this heart-wrenching anthem of endurance as if poignantly attempting to teach her mother a lesson that peace could have come to her naturally, without the use of drugs to buffer the pain. It's an unlearned lesson that tragically resulted in Judy's death when Lorna was just 16.

A trouper, Luft excels when she relates to the audience; her humor is partly self-effacing, partly that of a survivor. She's had a tough life in some ways but she's proud of her place in the world, and that feeling shines through. Writers/directors Mitzie and Ken Welch have created some clever material for the star, including a bio of Judy told through her landmark songs. During "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," one of several duets between Lorna (live) and her mom (on video), Judy pauses for a musical interlude as Lorna begins to sing -- and, honestly, it seems as if Judy is listening to her daughter from the beyond. Garland's signature song, "Over the Rainbow," has been reserved for the lady herself; it would have been hubris for Lorna to perform it, but she was wise and sensitive enough not to do so.

A 10-piece orchestra led by Lorna's husband, Colin R. Freeman, supports her well, as do the efforts of Alan Schwartz (wardrobe), Craig Stevens (hair), Neil Lane (jewelry), and Gregory Arlt (make-up). These elements reflect the style of Garland during her television years as seen in clips on the monitors; Lorna sparkles with jewels and glitter make-up just as Judy twinkled when clothed by Bob Mackie. Lighting designer Matt Berman infuses the theater with warm shades of red, purple, peach, pink, and orange reflected off of white scrims.

Songs My Mother Taught Me is an intimate evening -- not a spectacle, but more like flipping through photo albums with a dear friend.