Songs My Mother Taught Me: A Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland starring Lorna Luft

While introducing Lorna Luft to the crowd, Barry Manilow recalled that Judy Garland, comparing daughter Lorna to Liza and herself, concluded it was Lorna who had the best set of pipes. Luft wins on pitch and vocal control, and her tribute to Garland's life and career is a rousing, dramatically riveting musical event.

With:
Band: Freeman, Bob O'Donnell, Darrel Gardner, Jack Mitchell, Rusty Higgins, Bruce Otto, Charlie Marvillas, Mark Stevens, Paul Morin, Sydney Lehman.

While introducing Lorna Luft to the Feinstein’s at the Cinegrill crowd, Barry Manilow recalled that Judy Garland, comparing daughter Lorna to Liza and herself, concluded it was Lorna who had the best set of pipes. Luft wins on pitch and vocal control, and her tribute to Garland’s life and career is a rousing, dramatically riveting musical event. Although her vibrato links her with Garland and Minnelli, Luft’s overall persona is entirely different: Mother and sister convey bursting neurotic tension; Luft is warm and wholesome, the girl next door with a big voice.

Unabashedly proud of her mother, she doesn’t distance herself with any I’ve-gotta-be-me games. This show is the equivalent of a musical family album, framed by sentiment that works because it feels genuine. A B&W clip of Garland on her TV series singing the song “Lorna,” with special Johnny Mercer lyrics, is achingly real, and use of Garland video throughout the evening has enormous impact.

In the Natalie Cole/Nat King Cole tradition, Luft harmonizes with Garland’s video-projected three-screen image, bringing new poignancy to the Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh standard “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Beautiful vocal parts contributed by musical director Colin Freeman (Luft’s husband) enhance the number, along with first-rate backing from the Bob O’Donnell band.

Overall mother-and-daughter emotion reinforces Luft’s purpose in doing the show — to make sure her mother’s musical legacy lives on.

Orchestral charts handed down by Judy are a consistent highlight. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” opening with Latin flavor and surging into swing, demonstrates the range, power and intensity of Luft’s voice, and she effectively substitutes her own, elongated phrasing to the finale of “The Man That Got Away.”

Beyond Garland, photos and clips of other icons fill the stage as Luft reminisces about godfather Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. All are seen through a discreet, affectionate haze, an approach markedly opposite from her boldly realistic book and Emmy-winning miniseries “Me and My Shadows.” But the tone is consistent and Luft’s unmistakable love for her mother and her heritage has a refreshing, fairy tale charm.

Luft spotlights her children, Jesse and Vanessa, and their viewpoints about “grandma,” as she tears through “Born in a Trunk.” Roger Edens’ lyrics, written for 1954’s “A Star Is Born” have been smoothly reworked and tailored for Luft by writers-directors Mitzie and Ken Welch.

Only here, in the dialogue portions, is the sweetness over-emphasized, with its “grandma” references. Garland’s personality is too electric to contain such a sweet-little-old lady image, and patter lapses into coyness.

Fortunately, Luft belts the songs with fully committed vitality, and such standards as “You Made Me Love You,” “For Me and My Gal” and “The Trolley Song” are delivered with honesty and passion. Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler classic “Get Happy” was one of Garland’s best numbers, the immortal element of 1950s “Summer Stock,” and Luft infuses it with the same uplifting joy.

Luft states at the beginning that fear kept her from doing this tribute for years. The sight of her in black, off-the-shoulder top and black satin pants, a picture of confidence and glamour, clearly indicates that fear is no longer necessary, that the singer’s time has come.

Songs My Mother Taught Me: A Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland starring Lorna Luft

Feinstein's at the Cinegrill; 150 capacity; $35

Production: Presented inhouse. Directed and written by Mitzie and Ken Welch. Orchestra arranged and conducted by Colin Freeman.

Crew: Opened and reviewed May 13, 2003; runs through May 24.

Cast: Band: Freeman, Bob O'Donnell, Darrel Gardner, Jack Mitchell, Rusty Higgins, Bruce Otto, Charlie Marvillas, Mark Stevens, Paul Morin, Sydney Lehman.

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