This review of Tommy Femia's "I Will Come Back" at The Players Theatre was written by Rita Sola and appeared Volume II, Issue 1 (March, 1998) of Applause! Applause! published by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens.
"I Will Come Back" - Tommy Femia
The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal Street, NYC)
Reviewed 2/28/98 at 8:00 p.m.
Many years ago, on a television talk show, Liza Minnelli told the story of her mom's appearance at a night club where the performers had to share the lavatory facilities with the patrons. One evening, while Judy was doing so, a woman in the next stall gushed, "Oh, Miss Garland, you even tinkle beautifully." Judy replied, "Thank you, but stars should twinkle, not tinkle."
Apart from the pain and the heartaches that informed her life from childhood, Judy Garland is remembered by those who knew her off-stage as a very funny lady. "You know, behind every cloud there's another little cloud waiting to break through," she once told Jack Paar. It is this Judy that Tommy Femia with his impeccable comic timing captures so wonderfully in "I Will Come Back."
In it, he narrates what has become arguably the show business legend of the century, the life and career of Judy Garland. But it is a skeletal narration; the flesh is made up of some very droll commentary and it never ceases to amuse. Most of the script is original although some of the anecdotes may be apocryphal. For instance, Tommy as Judy tells how Louis B. Mayer chose her over Deanna Durbin (they had appeared together in a short feature which was really a screen test) by instructing his minions to "get rid of the fat one." Later, he met Judy on the studio grounds and, in vociferous dismay, declared that by the "fat one" he had meant her. According to other versions, Mayer did want Judy but he wanted Deanna. too, and was furious to hear she had been let go while he was in Europe. Whichever story is true, the one in "I Will Come Back" is funnier. Throughout the evening, you somehow feel this is just what Judy would have said and how she would have said it if she were still with us. This is not surprising since the show was written by Timothy Gray who, himself, worked with Judy as far back as 1952 when she appeared at the Palace.
Punctuating the narrative are the songs with which she is so closely associated including "The Trolley Song", "The Boy Next Door", "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby", plus four originals by Gray and Hugh Martin, who wrote the music for Meet Me In St. Louis. A happy highlight of the evening is the appearance of talented cabaret artist Kristine Zbornik (a very funny lady in her own right) as a FOB (Friend of Barbra, that is). She and Tommy recreate the famous Garland-Streisand coupling of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again" first done on Judy's TV show in 1963.
The staging, also by Timothy Gray, is witty, particularly a bit with a boa that would make Julie Wilson envious. Another number features a short staircase, the steps of which light up as Judy ascends and descends them. Needless to say, the cues go awry forcing her to scurry about as she sings, a metaphor for the constant calamities she had to deal with throughout her life.
The only flaw in the show is the opening. The house lights go down, and you hear a voice, sounding very much like Judy's, but you are aware, acutely aware, that this is not Judy. Tommy in his impersonation of Judy Garland captures her body language to such perfection that when watching his performance, you believe you are hearing the unique Garland voice. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in the dark.
What does work is the ending. It is Judy's traditional ending: "Over the Rainbow", sung while sitting at the edge of the stage, and all her magic and vulnerability are there.
Other performers have done excellent impersonations of Judy Garland, notably Richard Skipper (famed for his Carol Channing). But whereas Richard's Judy is like a John Singer Sargent portrait, Tommy's is comparable to an Al Hirschfeld caricature. This is not faint praise. Edward Albee once said of Hirschfeld's drawing of Colleen Dewhurst in Eugene O' Neill's "A Moon For The Misbegotten" that looking at it, he could see in his mind's eye every facet of her performance. For those who never saw Judy in person, as well as for those of us who did, "I Will Come Back" is a feast for the mind's eye.