Watching Tommy Femia impersonate Judy Garland for 90 minutes is one of the better ways to spend a Friday evening. His voice maybe isn't so powerful as the Late Great Garland's, but it's a pretty good imitation — especially in the long, slow passages, in which Tommy has the time to simultaneously open up the back of his throat and his nasal passages, thereby producing precisely the metallic-but-warm vibrato that the three or four generations of Garland devotees in his audience remember.
But however competent he may be, Femia is still an imitation, and his music is still just a bare-bones reduction of old pop standards that sound just as good on a record player as they do coming out of Femia's sturdy little pipes. Sit in the audience at Rising Action Theatre for an hour or so, and you may look around at the almost entirely gay crowd surrounding you, and wonder: Why are these people here? It's an interesting question, and for some reason it made me think of the great gay novelist, Edmund White.
White's The Beautiful Room is Empty contains a fine description of the kind of queer who took Judy Garland from Baby Gumm to gay icon. His name is Tex, and he runs it down for you like this: "My lovers always turn out to be straight... my current beau is a cop, and I just paid three hundred bucks for his wife's abortion." There are two kinds of gays in the world, Tex suggests: straight men who let queers suck them off and queers themselves. Neither group can ever have sex with one of their own, and the moment the former enjoy themselves too much, they are transformed instantly into the latter.
A surefire formula for loneliness, and the fay, wise-cracking Tex bears his loneliness like a cross.
Judy Garland, like Maria Callas, was a natural patron saint for men like Tex, and for the less-desiccated (but equally lonesome) queens White's protagonist would meet later in the book. Like them, Judy Garland grew up "different" (they were effeminate, she was Universal's homeliest starlet). Like them, she strived for beauty but could never quite convince herself she'd achieved it. Like them, she was unlucky in love, seemingly kicked around by men who couldn't appreciate her. Behind closed doors she may well have hurt her husbands as badly as they seemed to hurt her, but it never looked that way to us. And like them, her best friends were whatever mind-altering substances lay close at hand when the party was over and everyone had gone home.
Garland is a less obvious icon for the current crop of gay men, young guys who worship at the altars of Britney or Minogue or Madonna, and who, you figure, bid goodbye to Garland-style ennui around the time they graduated high school. They actually stand a chance of being well-adjusted. At Rising Action Theatre, even the older folks in the crowd would have sewn their oats during the post-Stonewall liberation era. Not like the men who first canonized Saint Jude, the fags of the Greatest Generation who were young enough to throw a brick in the Stonewall Riots but too old to enjoy those riots' eventual libertine fruits. And yet Rising Action was running a near-capacity house last weekend.
Judy Garland's Back is a simple show. Bare stage, a stool, a piano and a piano player, Gary Lawrence, and Femia done up as Judy Garland Show-era Garland. Tommy comes out, chats with the audience. He does a very good Garland, but it's not exactly a reproduction. It's more of a love letter, an impressionistic portrait that nails the essence by bending the specifics. He has Garland's jerkiness, the same sudden laughs and staccato speech patterns, but it feels less nervous on Tommy than it did on Garland.
When Garland jerked or squinted or blurted a short laugh for no reason, it was because she was communicating through an amphetamine hum. You can imagine that she hated her quirks when she saw them on a play-back and that she tried to suppress them. Tommy does the opposite. He embraces them and has a ball interpolating them into happier Garland numbers. In Tommy Femia's hands, "The Trolley Song" is a gay twitch-fest — pure, adoring shtick. It's a great performance, and it draws polite applause. Alas, for a song like that in front a crowd like Rising Action's, polite applause is the best you can reasonably expect. This audience didn't see Meet Me In St. Louis 'til it came out on video or DVD.
It's only in the sadder, vaguely masochistic songs that Garland loved so well that Femia transcends his kitsch and the expanse of time separating himself and his audience from Judy's heyday. In "The Man That Got Away," Femia sings: "The road gets rougher/It's lonelier and tougher..." No matter when they were born, any man — or anyone — over the age of 30 knows exactly what he means. In Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Femia sings: "Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it's breaking..." Femia sings it like he wants to believe it, just like Judy would have, and we all applaud as though by doing so we might convince ourselves we believed it all along.
Femia's persona is a mix: one-half Judy Garland at her talk-show wittiest, one half the shade-throwing queen who loved her. In his novel, White writes this bit of repartee: "Grab your tiaras, girls, we're all royalty tonight, why I haven't seen so many crowned heads since Westminster Abbey — " "I know you give head, Abbie, but the only crowns you've seen are on those few molars you've got left."
Gay men don't talk like that any more, and, when Femia does, his whole performance feels like an artifact; enjoyable to see, but removed from any sense of immediacy. This alone would not pack the house at Rising Action.
It takes the music to do that — that sad music, looking for a cause for optimism or just an excuse to keep breathing. Which means, I guess, that starlets come and go, but loneliness is made of sturdier stuff.