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“This is insane, right?” Rufus Wainwright confides after the first number. But when you are smiling – and he tackles this live replica of Judy Garland’s landmark 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall with such dash, humour and self-deprecation it is impossible not to root for him – the whole world tends to smile with you. First staged in New York in June, his recreation of the troubled Garland’s career high is audacious. Yet the man regarded as a “gay messiah” by fans of his incorrigibly confessional chamber-pop proves he can stand sequin-to-sequin with a woman he calls a “gay beacon”.
If the enterprise resembles a superior Stars in their Eyes, it is not that he is attempting mimicry. His habitually languid drone would not come close. Rather, he uses the material – a musical costume-box of 30 ballads and showtunes, conducted by the Avenue Q and Wicked arranger Stephen Oremus – to extend his range, while recounting droll anecdotes.
Inevitably, some songs fit him as well as his Viktor & Rolf suits; others leave him stretched. He is best when the tempo slows. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is a gadfly letting his guard down; “Do It Again” shines with moonstruck vulnerability, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, at once disillusioned and dreamy, is made marvellously his own. Should he fluff or falter, there is always a winning quip. “Manly, grrr!” he exhorts himself before hoofing camply through “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.
The guest spots are a family affair. Wainwright’s sister Martha nearly steals the show with “Stormy Weather” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”, singing like a vamp on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The support offered by Lorna Luft, one of Garland’s daughters, is more belt-and- brassiere. But her showbizy bawling is cheered. When Wainwright returns, he almost signs off with “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, but thinks better of it. “They’re uppers, these songs, real uppers,” he mutters ironically, finishing instead with another blast of “San Francisco”. A true entertainer.
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