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Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall

The pop singer/songwriter's recreation of Judy Garland's legendary 1961 concert at this hallowed hall is a complete triumph.

Rufus Wainwright
(Photo © Joe Mama Nitzberg)
When it was announced that pop singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright planned to give a Carnegie Hall concert that would recreate the legendary Judy Garland's legendary April 23, 1961 performance at that hallowed venue, many fans wondered if the event would be an embarrassment or a triumph. The answer came last night, and a cheering crowd of about 3,000 people affirmed that it was the latter.

The Garland concert in question is often referred to as the greatest night in show business history. Such hyperbole is given credence by the complete recording of the once-in-a-lifetime performance, in which the icon thundered her way through a fabulous program of standards by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, et al. One might well have feared that any artist's attempt to recreate such a concert would be folly. Trepidation about Wainwright's venture was increased by the fact that the essentially reedy, throaty sound he has displayed when singing his own songs is so different from Garland's amazing instrument, which was capable of every conceivable mode of expression from a soft, breathy purr to a full-throttle belt.

But such worries proved to be beside the point. Because Wainwright's voice is not remotely like Garland's -- not to mention the fact that he's a man and she was a woman -- there's no real basis for direct comparison of the two singers' renditions of these great songs, whereas it probably would have been unwise of Bette Midler, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, or even Garland's daughters Liza Minnelli or Lorna Luft to attempt such a stunt.

Actually, Luft made a welcome guest appearance in Wainwright's concert, duetting with him in "After You've Gone." It was just enough to give the event an extra dollop of historical occasion without inviting comparisons between mama and daughter. Wainwright also acknowledged Garland lore by dedicating his performance of "Come Rain or Come Shine" to Howard Hirsch, Judy's devoted percussionist; and he made the event his own kind of family affair by giving guest star spots to his mother and sister, Kate McGarrigle and Martha Wainwright.

The most wondrous discovery of the concert was that Wainwright can definitely sing in a classic showbiz "belt" style. One could sense the audience's delight (and relief!) when, after musical director Stephen Oremus had led the 40-piece orchestra through a pulse-raising performance of the overture, the singer sent his voice soaring through the house in the climactic section of "When You're Smiling." Equally exciting were his performances of "Almost Like Being in Love"/"This Can't Be Love," "The Man That Got Away," and "San Francisco," but he pulled way back for touchingly intimate renditions of "Alone Together," "You're Nearer," and "If Love Were All."

Carnegie Hall has long been notorious for its substandard sound amplification, so it's happy news that this was not a problem last night. In fact, sound designer Brian Ronan deserves special praise for giving Wainwright's voice extra heft without distortion. Throughout the evening, Oremus and the orchestra performed brilliantly, doing full justice to the wonderful orchestrations of Mort Lindsey, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle.

Wainwright's adoration of Garland was evident not only in his singing but also in his patter. (Two samples: "I'm going to speak now because, on the album, Judy speaks now," and "When I was a kid, I wanted to be Dorothy.") His frequent observance of Garland's phrasing and vocal embellishments was uncanny, and he went so far as to ape the icon's famous flub of the lyrics in "You Go to My Head." Capping the evening were two encores that were not part of the Garland concert: "Get Happy" and "Everytime We Say Goodbye" (which Wainwright incorrectly sang as "Everytime You Say Goodbye").

The concert was a master class in how to honor a great star while stopping short of outright mimicry. It was only scheduled for two nights, and tonight's show is sold out, but don't despair: This mind-blowing event is being filmed for commercial release, so you'll eventually be able to see and hear what all the cheering was about.

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