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BWW Review: Justin Sayre & Company's NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS Benefit Honors Stonewall 50 (and Judy, of Course)

BWW Review: Justin Sayre & Company's NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS Benefit Honors Stonewall 50 (and Judy, of Course)
Justin Sayre performs with Jean Cruz and Marco Espinosa Camerena at the NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS benefit at Joe's Pub.
Photos: Jeff Eason

It's hard to dream up a better way to kick off LGBTQ Pride Month than with a Judy Garland-themed concert hosted by a queer artist and raising money for an LGBTQ organization.

And that's just what NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS was, and what a joy it was to be there Saturday, June 1, at Joe's Pub. The Pride concert honored Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots, with the 7th edition event commemorating the riots' 50th anniversary and benefitting the Ali Forney Center.

Following brief comments from producers Adam Rosen and Dan Fortune, as well as the Ali Forney Center's Tyler Neasloney, Justin Sayre made their grand entrance.

Sayre, who wrote and emceed JUDYS, noted that this is the time of year they take stock of the "gay year" they've had and whether they've lived up to their "gay potential."

"Aesthetically, I'm nailing it," they cracked.

Sayre nailed the first number, too, setting a high bar belting out "The Trolley Song," with dancers Jean Cruz and Marco Espinosa Camerena clang, clang, clanging about the stage behind them. In fact, it was a MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS one-two punch, followed up by Matt Doyle (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) heavenly ode to "The Boy Next Door."

Taking the stage in a sequined suit, Julian Fleisher's (New York Public Radio) energetic riff on GIRL CRAZY's "I Got Rhythm" almost felt more like a nod to Cab Calloway than to Judy, complete with scatting and a vocal battle with a trumpet, played by Chris DiMeglio. The performers were also accompanied by Drew Wutke on piano, David Berger on drums, Tomoya Aomori on cello, and musical director Lance Horne on piano.

Molly Pope, who Sayre noted was the first-ever guest of THE MEETING*, turned out a loving parody of "I Don't Care" from IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, all flailing limbs, comedic overenunciation, and even a bit of interpretive dance.

Nathan Lee Graham (ZOOLANDER) performed "Ol' Man River," a number Garland covered on THE Judy Garland SHOW. Graham could teach a masterclass on the difference between homage and impression, tastefully paying tribute to an iconic performance in a way entirely his own and running the gamut tonally along the way.

"Never let them steal our joy," Graham said before he began. It was a sentiment echoed by Sayre in a tearful but energizing speech that followed about the importance of creating something beautiful out of the ugliness of the world, "because that's what queer people do."

BWW Review: Justin Sayre & Company's NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS Benefit Honors Stonewall 50 (and Judy, of Course)
Nathan Lee Graham performs "Ol' Man River" in tribute to Garland at Joe's Pub.

Nowhere was that joy more evident than when Sayre and Fleisher returned to duet on the Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand medley of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again" from THE Judy Garland SHOW. Amber Martin (John Cameron Mitchell's THE ORIGIN OF LOVE) knew she had a Herculean task ahead of her, pivoting gracefully from that effervescent number to the torchiest of all torch songs: "The Man That Got Away" from Judy's 1954 version of A STAR IS BORN. Of course, with talent like Martin's, she was in no danger of, as she worried aloud beforehand, "ruining" anybody's night.

The evening, which also included somber, sensitive performances from Brittain Ashford (THE GREAT COMET OF 1812), Kat Cunning (Company XIV's CINDERELLA) and Christine Andreas ("OKLAHOMA!"), culminated with a cast and audience performance of "Over the Rainbow" from THE WIZARD OF OZ.

As a frequenter of Sayre's shows, it was impossible to miss connections to the star's other efforts, from a "next up on the agenda" comment that recalls their eight-season run of THE MEETING* to Judy's "Ol' Man River" performance, which also received special mention during one of their GAY-B-C's shows. Those callbacks, however unintentional, only served to deepen the event's ties to the queer lineage JUDYS was honoring (and to which Sayre pays tribute in so much of their work).

Because unlike a mouthwash brand or a bank---you know who you are---Pride isn't something Sayre feigns interest in for a month and then leaves at the curb like a dried-out Christmas tree once it's over.

They're living proof of it all year long.

Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.

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