On the one hand, I had been thrilled and awed by Birdsong's uncanny impersonation of Garland on two previous occasions, when she appeared in Jackie Hoffman's "Kosher Kristmas" show at 45 Bleecker and in Screen Door (a benefit performance of a take-off on Stage Door) at The Town Hall. On the other hand, having heard brief excerpts of Garland's journal tapes, I knew that much of the content is rambling, bitter, and ultimately tragic -- the kind of thing that might serve as the basis of one of the most exploitive theater pieces ever conceived. That Judy Speaks doesn't merit such a description says a lot for the show's writing (by Birdsong) and direction (by Gregory Wolfe). It's also a testament to Birdsong's talents as a singer, actress, and Garland impersonator, which seem to have no bounds.
Judy Speaks opens with Birdsong brilliantly performing one of Garland's most famous mini-medleys, "Almost Like Being in Love" into "This Can't Be Love," presented as if on the last show of her 1960s CBS-TV variety series. About half of the ensuing show consists of scenes in which Judy speaks her journal thoughts into a reel-to-reel tape recorder. (Oddly, this central prop is not functional, which is very distracting.) These scenes alternate with fantasy sequences in which Birdsong sings several of the legend's signature numbers as commentary on the vicissitudes of her life. Though she is trimmer than Garland was during much of her career and her gestures are somewhat more fluid and less manic than those of the real McCoy, Birdsong sounds so much like Garland while singing that even the most rabid Judyphile will be dumbstruck with appreciation. She does a truly amazing job of recreating the icon's timbre and, among many other things, she has perfected Garland's salient mannerism of singing on closed consonants such as "m" and "n."
Incredibly, Birdsong sounds even more like Garland when speaking. This lends an almost creepy air to the verbatim journal excerpts, during which Garland covers such topics as her gay fans, her often parlous financial situation, her contempt for M-G-M and Louis B. Mayer, and her suicide attempts. She also famously goes on about "the stench of Sid Luft," her third husband. (By the way: At the performance I attended, Birdsong was smoking what sure smelled to me like a tobacco cigarette during one or two of the journal recording scenes. Perhaps she and her producers are unaware of the Clean Indoor Air Act?)
For the most part, Judy Speaks avoids the tastelessness in which it might have trafficked, though there are a couple of lapses that should be addressed immediately. When a young Judy "jokes" about the "vitamins" her mother has been giving her and the audience laughs, it's a nasty moment for all concerned. Also treated far too lightly is Judy's reference to having aborted the child of her first husband, David Rose. Fortunately, such moments are rare, and the show as a whole comes across as respectful thanks in large part to Birdsong's sincerity.
As presented at the Ars Nova Theater, Judy Speaks has variable production values. Birdsong sings to instrumental tracks, and while this choice was probably made in an attempt to capture the sound of Garland's fabulous arrangements, it lends the show a somewhat cheesy air. Also, though Carrie Hash has done a nice job of providing Birdsong's wardrobe, the star's wigs are all wrong for the various periods represented; this is most obvious when she performs "Get Happy" from Summer Stock in something that rather calls to mind the hairstyle Garland sported in her final film, I Could Go on Singing. On the plus side, the projection and sound design of Michael Clark is often first-rate; I particularly enjoyed the bit where the M-G-M lion roars in Louis B. Mayer's voice, although the intercutting of dialogue from Garland's child custody hearing with scenes of Maximilian Schell interrogating the character Garland played in Judgment at Nuremberg work less well. The scenic design (by Andrew Baseman), lighting design (by Jeff Croiter), and minimal choreography (by Devanand Janki) are also praiseworthy.
The show proper ends with a wonderful Birdsong performance of "Over the Rainbow." Thrown in as an encore, in order to send the audience out on an up note rather than making us want to jump off a cliff, is "Swanee." Whether Judy Speaks is ultimately a respectful tribute to a great star or a shameful invasion of her privacy is, of course, a matter of opinion. But if Judy Speaks occasionally falters, Mary Birdsong is divine throughout.