Using sincerity and spirit to make up for his lack of a Broadway-belter voice, Rufus Wainwright retired his Judy Garland re-enactment on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, making his all-Garland revue site specific by performing precisely what she did 46 years ago in her famous one-night stand. Wainwright made the concept work by focusing the show on the repertoire and not the legend who made the material her own; his own material often enters a baroque tug-of-war with restraint and in a night in which he would go way, way, way over the top, he let restraint win. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra took care of providing the dynamics that would not be found in Wainwright’s vocals; Wainwright made sure the evening possessed intimacy and a celebratory feel on top of musical validity.
Prominent gay musician salutes a gay icon — the potential for camp was overwhelming. Yet he kept it to a minimum — actually, it was pretty much limited to Wainwright’s Tom Ford-designed puffy shirt. (He even steered “The Trolley Song” away from goofball territory.) Rather than recite Garland’s stories, Wainwright inserted his own personal tales, none more humorous than one about Betty Buckley’s saving him when, as a 4-year-old, he fell in Chateau Marmont’s pool.
That ultimately becomes part of the Rufus Sings Judy charm: “Garland at Carnegie Hall” is a template rather than a script, an opportunity for Wainwright to expose himself within the context of legendary songs. In no way does he get caught up in re-creating Garland’s style or persona — he goes after the Garland demeanor that America adored.
Earlier this year, Wainwright re-created Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in Gotham, London and Paris. That show, which became a No. 1 album and sat on the chart for more than a year, is quite similar to the Bowl show, which was not recorded — commercially or privately — and may well be more famous for being staged in the rain, rather than any of the material or performances.
Wainwright adjusted the show to replicate that September 1961 night at the Bowl: “San Francisco” closed out the first act and reprised as the final encore; “Never Will I Marry” replaced Carnegie Hall’s “You Go To My Head”; a ramp was placed between the stage and the front section of the garden boxes to allow the singer to head into the crowd; and he went up to a Hollywood legend to deliver a kiss and a greeting. Garland smooched Rock Hudson; Wainwright went cheek-to-cheek with Debbie Reynolds.
He started in smashing fashion with “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)”; paid homage to Garland’s flub in “You Go to My Head”; delivered a warm and tender “Alone Together” and mischievously dedicated “How Long Has This Been Going On?” to his mother. In the second act, “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Chicago” were full of gusto; “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was a delightful and classy throwback.
Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft dueted with Wainwright on “After You’ve Gone”; sister Martha Wainwright lent a dark and ominous tone to “Stormy Weather” and an affecting caress to “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Rufus’ mom, Kate McGarrigle, accompanied him on the piano, most effectively on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Band included the fine jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who unfortunately was limited to only one solo.