Aiming to re-create, song by song on the same stage, the legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert that capped Judy Garland’s career and is classed among the greatest live performances of all time, Rufus Wainwright set himself a formidable challenge that smacks of equal parts homage and hubris. But in the first of two shows being filmed by Sam Mendes for a Killer Films documentary, the singer-songwriter pulled it off with what seemed almost like effortless grace, his supple voice and respectful approach studiously avoiding campy impersonation.
Since emerging with his self-titled debut album in 1998, Wainwright has made it clear his roots are far from contemporary, showing less of a debt to his folk-musician parents Loudon Wainwright III and Anna McGarrigle than to eclectic influences ranging from Al Jolson to Edith Piaf to Puccini. And of course Judy Garland.
His trademark smoky vocals and languid musical raconteuring make Wainwright a natural fit for the more torchy numbers in Garland’s Carnegie repertoire. So it was no surprise when the 32-year-old performer aced the delivery of “Do It Again,” both blissed-out and melancholy; a plaintive “Alone Together” or a soulful “The Man That Got Away.” He turned up the sleepy sensuality on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and brought a delicate wistfulness to his phrasing of even that most untouchable of Garland’s songs, “Over the Rainbow,” seated on the lip of the stage with his mother at the piano. The more intimate, contemplative set of “You’re Nearer,” “A Foggy Day” and “If Love Were All” was especially fine.
Less expected was the verve and mischievous wit of uptempo numbers like “That’s Entertainment” (in top hat and hipster tux, courtesy of designer duo Viktor & Rolf), “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Swanee” or a rousing take on “The Trolley Song.” Likewise “San Francisco,” pausing mid-intro to speculate on whether Judy was dissing Jeanette MacDonald.
Wainwright’s indispensable allies in the ambitious undertaking included bright young Broadway music director Stephen Oremus (“Wicked”), who led the 36-piece orchestra, including jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar.
Jon Charles and Christopher Jahnke adapted the inventive original orchestrations of Mort Lindsey, Billy May and Nelson Riddle with remarkable fidelity, transposing most of the songs into a lower key to fit Wainwright’s voice.
The headliner conceded the stage to his sister Martha for a striking interpretation of “Stormy Weather” that brought the crowd to its feet and supplied a jolt of drag-queeny theatricality (loved the shoes) to contrast her brother’s artful drone and mellow persona.
Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft joined Wainwright for a routine duet on “After You’ve Gone.” Sole departures from the album playlist were encores of “Get Happy” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”
While the impeccable musicianship of Wainwright and his collaborators made the show memorable in its own right, perhaps not even the singer himself could have expected to rival his inspiration. Even for fans familiar only with the Garland recording, it was an event in which the love between performer and audience created a crackling electric forcefield. Garland’s voice was a far more emotional instrument than Wainwright’s and her warmth, generosity and history of personal adversity, of very public highs and lows, colored her vocals in ways few if any other singers will ever approach.
As exceptionally talented as Wainwright is, he’s a far more self-aware, less spontaneous performer, worshiping at the sacred Garland altar. But for the ecstatic Carnegie Hall crowd, watching a gay artist with his own history of personal demons channel popular culture’s most enduring gay icon clearly represented a full-circle experience.