The dog days of summer get an extra spark with the arrival of Portland, Oregon-based singer Rebecca Kilgore at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency. Last year she celebrated the musical side of Marilyn Monroe. Now she calls her new show “The Jazzy Side of Judy Garland.” The lady has high ideals and lofty goals.
I didn’t know Judy had a jazzy side, but Ms. Kilgore proves it. Refurbishing the classics with new tempos and beats is a good enough excuse for a cabaret act, I suppose, but it’s an ambitious stretch for an hour of summer music. To expand the concept for an hour, her research extends beyond the boundaries of Judy’s epic movie career to include some of her recordings and television appearances as well. For the most part, you can shout “Excelsior!” Die-hard Garland fans will be delighted to hear an homage to her MGM mentor Roger Edens that includes “The Joint is Really Jumpin’ Down at Carnegie Hall,” the showstopper she performed with pianist Jose Iturbi in Thousands Cheer, “Dear Mr. Gable” (introduced at Clark Gable’s 36th birthday party) and “Until You’ve Played the Palace,” which Edens wrote for her legendary one-woman comeback at the Palace Theatre in 1951. Other signature familiarities from the movies include a wistful “The Boy Next Door” and a subdued arrangement of “The Trolley Song,” two Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane favorites from Meet Me in St. Louis, as well as Irving Berlin’s “Better Luck Next Time” from Easter Parade. Despite her warmth and musical agility, Ms. Kilgore lacks the passion and range to do justice to “The Man That Got Away,” which she should discard immediately. Even allowing for the fact that songs should not be restricted to only one interpretation, if you ignore the bitterness and wrenching drama of that seminal musical outcry, you miss not only what Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin had in mind when they wrote it, but the essence of Garland’s power to hold the hearts of millions in the palm of her hand with a single composition. Another caveat: with so much impressive research, how could Ms. Kilgore overlook (or even fail to mention) the great Kay Thompson, who taught Judy everything she knew about phrasing, timing and taste? Kay was the jazziest influence in Garland’s career. If anyone personified “the jazzy side of Judy Garland,” the title of this show and the reason behind it, it was Kay Thompson.
Still, there is much to applaud here, namely Rebecca Kilgore herself. As a jazz stylist, she’s not the same kind of dazzling, imaginative or creative technician as Sue Raney (who is opening her first New York nightclub appearance in 35 years at Feinstein’s on Nov. 4), but she’s refreshingly without a trace of the pretentious silliness of a Nellie McKay. Her sound is smooth and mellow. She can captivate you with her gentle and emotional interpretation of a lovely Harry Warren ballad like the seldom-heard “Friendly Star” (from Summer Stock, Judy’s final film at Metro), then turn right around and swing “The Jitterbug” (unwisely cut from The Wizard of Oz) with a girlish bobby-sox vigor that is surprisingly cool. There’s a large smile on her face and in her voice. She has a straight-no chaser approach that is magnetic, without a lot of forced intensity but with an ample generosity of spirit that is catching. Except for a few terse intros to the material, the patter is minimal, and she mercifully leaves out “Over the Rainbow,” which nobody has ever sung properly except Judy Garland herself. Somehow that’s the greatest tribute of all.