The moment everyone was waiting for during Lorna Luft’s opening night at Feinstein’s at the Cinegrill Tuesday never came, at least in its expected form.
Of all the memory-drenched numbers in her show, titled “Songs My Mother Taught Me: A Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland,” there was one that would be the most poignant of all. And everyone in the crowd knew what it was.
The day before her opening, however, juggling a cell phone while rushing from costume fitting to rehearsal, Luft had made one thing perfectly clear: “I would never sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’ It was my mother’s personal song, and I don’t know of another song that is so highly identified with one person, sung by her to the umpth degree of perfection. Frank Sinatra once said to me, ‘I’d never, never sing “Over the Rainbow,” ’ and he was right.”
If not “Over the Rainbow,” then what? How does one celebrate the life and work of a legendary artist without singing her signature number?
Luft, 50, is too canny a show business veteran to allow such a question to go unanswered. But it was awhile in coming on Tuesday. And with the entire catalog of Garland hits from which to choose, her fast-paced performance exploded in a compelling blend of musical excitement and poignant remembrance.
Every song was tinged with deep Garland references: “When You’re Smiling,” “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” “Easter Parade,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Man That Got Away.” In most cases, the arrangements were virtually identical to those written for Garland, played by a sterling 10-piece band, with Luft’s husband, Colin Freeman, serving as pianist and music director.
The show, written by Ken and Mitzi Welch, opened with a particularly touching video clip of Garland singing a song to a very young Lorna, written in her daughter’s honor. Other videos followed -- Garland with an infant Lorna, Garland with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., with Luft occasionally appearing at various ages. A kind of family album -- but filled with famous faces.
And it was the visual aspects of the show that most clearly underscored the fact that Luft’s decision to sing a career-spanning collection of her mother’s songs for the first time was as much a tribute to their intimate relationship as it was to Garland’s professional career.
Like Luft’s book, “Me and My Shadows,” and the Emmy-winning miniseries based on the book, the musical presentation was the product of a desire to come to grips with both the demons and privileges of a rich but demanding personal legacy. The show was written and directed by Ken and Mitzi Welch, who have created multimedia musical presentations for Barry Manilow, Carol Burnett and others.
“When I first approached Ken and Mitzi about writing the show,” Luft recalled this week, “they said, ‘If all you want to do is sing a bunch of your mom’s songs, we’re not interested. But if you want to tell the whole story, like you did with your book, then that’s something we’d be very interested in.’ And of course that was exactly what I wanted.”
Telling the whole story seems to have had liberating consequences for Luft. The most intriguing on stage was the manner in which she sang the familiar numbers. Like her mother and her half-sister, Liza Minnelli, Luft has a strong and pliable voice. But her renderings of the songs were very different from the Garland versions. They were as strong and dramatic but had far less vulnerability -- the reflection, one assumes, of a life that has taken a very different path from her mother’s often troubled one.
Luft finally got around to addressing the first stages of that path with her encore. By that point, her enthusiastic audience had been thoroughly primed for a grand closing. And she was true to her word that she would not sing Garland’s signature song.
Instead, she sang “Shining Star” -- different melodically but based on the same harmonies as the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg classic -- in counterpoint to a recording of her mother singing “Over the Rainbow.”
The effect was magical, and the placement of the number was perfect, a lovely arc reaching from the Garland beginnings to the final coming together of mother and daughter.
Where: Feinstein’s at the Cinegrill, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Tonight-Saturday and Tuesday-May 24. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.
Price: $35, plus $30 minimum beverage or dinner purchase
Info: (323) 769-7269