Review: High-Powered Garland Tribute NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub

"If I had pearls, I'd be clutching them!" remarked the host after one sizzling number

By: Jun. 11, 2024
Review: High-Powered Garland Tribute NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
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Each year when the 10th of June rolls around, it’s time to remember that it’s the anniversary of the birth of the legendary entertainer Judy Garland.  Although she died back in 1969 (also in the month of June), the legend lives on.  Songs associated with her  — including some that were written for her — make up the repertoire of an annual concert celebration each June called Night of a Thousand Judys, when a parade of performers take on the repertoire.  As her death coincided with the events of Stonewall, a turning point in the fight for rights for LGBTQ+ people and Garland was (and is) an icon for that community, June is even more so the right time for a show like this. The June 3rd show provided a gay-friendly/inclusive roster of singers benefitting an organization that provides services for homeless LGBTQ+youth, the Ali Forney Center.

Review: High-Powered Garland Tribute NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub The 12th annual Night of a Thousand Judys was well attended and wildly cheered.  And sometimes just wild.  The production was hosted by its mischievously comical creator/writer Justin Elizabeth Sayre, filled with glee and gusto galore, with a twinkle in the eye and alway a quip on the tip of a sometimes sharp (or mock-sharp) tongue.  The sassy Sayre also kicked things off in song — with a high-energy “Great Day” making for a great start,  with two smiling, slinky dancers in tow (and on their toes): Kyle Kowalewski and Evan Pouch. Our host became emotional at times in sharing perspectives, gratitude, and affection for Judy Garland’s impact. 

Night of a Thousand Judys has a policy that nobody sings the Garland signature, “Over the Rainbow” unless everyone does: the whole company and the audience, too.  It was presented in a straightforward, embellishment-free manner so that it would be easy for anyone to join in.  That was the simple-but-effective choice for “Over the Rainbow,” but “over the top” was mostly the M.O. rule of the day, with many bravura, belting, flamboyant, flashy, all-stops-out showstoppers. Being subtle was rarely on the agenda, although Timothy Hughes, seated for “Just in Time” and Grey Henson, suitably dewy-eyed and dreamy as he pined for “The Boy Next Door,” were quite restrained.  An introduction for the latter, praising his very funny work on Broadway in Shucked, may have made some think he was being set up for a comedy-styled take or a spoof, and I noted some laughter after some early lines in the lyric. But the sincerity came through soon enough in this number from the film Meet Me in St. Louis.  Another selection from that score was “The Trolley Song.”  Strutting and winking in their sparkly costumes, the guys of The Boy Band Project (Jesse Corbin, Chris Messina, Nicolas Metcalf, Travis Nesbitt) were a hoot handling this one in a very clever arrangement by Drew Wutke that had the pep of the original style of the movie seesawing back and forth with the splash and flash of the late 20th century pop male groups. 

In the grander, gutsier numbers, some in the crowd applauded and whooped when a singer went for – and sustained — big, high notes.  This seems to be a regular response in some shows, in the manner of impressed or fervidly supportive attendees at singing competitions such as TV’s American Idol.

There was no shortage of diva dramatics, raising the rafters, camp, attitude, and intensity to knock one’s socks off.  Nathan Lee Graham’s “Stormy Weather” was a whole-gale hurricane and tsunami that made the cyclone that lifted the house of the character played by Judy Garland high into the air in The Wizard of Oz seem like a gentle summer breeze. The most effective use of potent vocal dynamics in keeping with a song’s drama and despair, with build and variety, came with Natalie Joy Johnson’s dazzling “The Man That Got Away.” 

Tammy Faye Starlite began her performance aping Judy Garland’s wide-eyed adolescent movie scene about having a crush of movie star Clark Gable, the song-and-monologue for “Dear Mr. Gable” / “You Made Me Love You,” veering sharply from the sweet original words to add a variety of crass words referring to genitals (literally, or to describe the behavior of the woman) and sex acts. This kind of audacious vulgarity is not the kind of comedy attempt I find amusing, but many in the packed room were roaring with pop-eyed laughter.            

Other participants were Edmund Bagnell, Gabrielle Beckford, Antwayn Hopper, and recent Jazz Grammy winner Nicole Zuraitis.  Justin Vivian Bond, a frequent Joe’s Pub attraction, was presented with the “Judy Icon Award” and made an acceptance speech.  The fine four-piece band was led by its pianist and the night’s main arranger, Jeremy Robin Lyons, who not only played with flair in each style, but was focused, attentive, and lively.    

Although most of the evening had a party-like atmosphere, there were a few serious moments that reflected on times in life when everything isn’t as serene as when, like in Judy Garland’s theme song, when the “happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow.”  Mr. Hopper briefly alluded to harder times when he himself needed help and was a client of the Ali Forney Center. The Forney Center’s leader, Alex Roque, expressed alarm and anger about the current political climate and events threatening LGBTQ+ rights and Justin Elizabeth Sayre vented some frustrations on such matters.  

The extravaganza event was produced by Dan Fortune (executive producer) and Adam J. Rosen, directed by Peter James Cook, with some choreography by Jason Wise.  

Illustration:  Daniel Nolen

Photo credit: Conor Weiss. (See his full set of photos from the night.)

Anyone who was unable to attend the event can still donate to help The Ali Forney Center here.

To learn more about the Ali Forney Center’s charitable work, visit www.aliforneycenter.org.

Find more upcoming shows at Joe's Pub on their website.



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