What are the connections between Bette Midler and Judy Garland? If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, Katy Halenda’s “Somewhere Over the Rose” will answer it. It’s her latest one-woman cabaret show at FST. But that begs a follow-up question …
Does the Midler/Garland connection really exist, or is this a theatrical gimmick along the lines of, say, a Cole Porter/Trent Reznor revue?
Having seen the show, I’m happy to report the answer is yes. There’s a deep, organic connection. It goes beyond the obvious surface stuff. Brassy broads singing torch songs. Significant fan bases in the gay community. Personal tragedy. It’s more than that.
The deepest link is public image: the self on stage or in front of the camera; the real you who isn’t you. That image can be a trap or a release. Either way, every performer has one. It’s part of the job description.
And Halenda knows something about performing.
This woman was born for the stage. Oomph, pizzazz, stage presence, charisma. Whatever you want to call it, she’s got it. And she needs it for this kind of one-woman show. (The talented Jim Prosser, the one man on piano, backs her up.) Halenda not only performed the show: She wrote it and selected the music.
Good tunes, but with Garland and Midler as your pop icons, what do you expect? You get Garland standards such as “The Trolley Song,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and the inevitable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Midler’s top hits include “The Rose,” “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance.” Halenda delivers at full-throttle. She doesn’t do imitations but channels the spirit of each performer.
The music is pure fun, but she always returns to the lives behind it. “Somewhere Over the Rose” is as much biography as song revue. Like a good film editor, Halenda zips back and forth between the two life stories, and the weird reflections and resonances Garland and Midler’s stories create.
Garland’s story is heartbreaking. By age 12, she was addicted to Louis B. Mayer’s little helpers. (Speed, that is.) Garland didn’t go out looking for the stuff. Her show biz handlers gave it to her to make her perky on set at 6:30 in the morning. Bad medicine for a growing brain and bad mojo for the future adult. Garland’s ongoing addiction wrecked her ability to form close emotional attachments, as her failed marriages proved.
She would never go back to Kansas again.
Midler had her own share of heartaches, but she pulled through. Like any good American artist/capitalist, she packaged herself in a salable image — a finger-popping, wise-cracking, swing tune-singing, bawdy, red-hot mamma who stepped out of a 1940s USO show into the 1970s and never looked back. Yeah, that image sold. The difference between Midler and Garland? Simple …
Garland’s media handlers created her image: first Mickey Rooney’s eternal girlfriend, than Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz.” An ill-fitting persona, but they stuffed the real person inside and stitched her up. After that, whatever she did, her audiences would see Dorothy, not Judy. The real Judy Garland was stuck in that image for life.
Midler’s persona was her own invention. Where Garland’s persona had trapped her, the “Divine Miss M” image set the real Bette Midler free. In this war of images, one performer was a survivor, the other a casualty. But it didn’t have to be that way.
Halenda makes you see Bette Midler as the Judy Garland of an alternate universe. Midler is a Judy Garland who pulled herself together, reinvented herself and survived.
That’s the connection.
Halenda makes you feel it. Thanks to her deep empathy, powerful stage presence and a rafter-shaking voice, you can’t help but feel it. She knows where both performers are coming from. After her performance, you will, too.
IF YOU GO
“Somewhere Over the Rose” runs through Aug. 31, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Court Cabaret, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.
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