His gal Judy

Times Staff Writer

RIGHT before the very last encore of “Rufus Wainwright Sings Judy Garland” on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, the singer and composer, a little punch-drunk from the passionate two-hour wrestling match he’d just had with his muse, had one request. “This is the last show ever of this type I’ll do,” he said. “So let’s have fun during this, OK?”

It seemed like a strange thing to ask of an audience who’d already given him one standing ovation. But really, Wainwright was talking to himself.

Wainwright had shown many emotions -- awe, resolve, rapture, embarrassment, frustration and mirth -- as he re-created Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, a feat he’d previously accomplished in New York, Paris and London. Now he was departing his 16-month residency inside the soul of the woman he once described as a “beacon” and a “saint” for gay men. It was time to smile, kick up his heels and belt out “Chicago” -- the final song of Garland’s 1961 show.

Strutting the catwalk with zingy support from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Broadway bigwig Stephen Oremus, Wainwright let loose his sinewy tenor on Fred Fisher’s verses about “that toddling town.” He took things to the next level when he returned for the encore, having shed his modest Tom Ford-designed suit for a black jacket, nylons, pumps and a fedora: one of Garland’s most famous outfits.

The crowd roared. Was this what they’d been hoping for all along -- a “real” drag show, with Wainwright imitating Garland all the way down to those sexy gams?


What he actually delivered was more interesting and certainly more contemporary. Incorporating drag elements but staying true to the openness and whimsy of his post-Stonewall, post-punk generation, Wainwright explored Garland not just as a tragic icon but as a vaudevillian jester, a swinging singer and a visceral interpreter of lyrics about love and sorrow.

The show took time to build. At first Wainwright seemed daunted by the technical challenges of classics such as “The Man That Got Away.” He laughed nervously when he missed notes and announced his relief when certain tough songs ended. Perhaps the Bowl itself, so much larger than Carnegie Hall, put Wainwright off his stride.

He overcame anxiety enough to deliver some beautiful moments. Singing “Do It Again” in the original key, Wainwright relied on an alluring smoky falsetto, his eyes closed. And his raucous take on the 1936 showstopper “San Francisco” slyly nodded to gay pride as well as the Gay ‘90s.

After intermission, Wainwright finally found the right balance of respect and irreverence. His voice wavered -- he sings like a singer-songwriter, not a star of stage and screen -- and he flubbed lines here and there. But his performance became more confident and fun, its complexities emerging more easily.

Wainwright’s campier gestures and wilder vocal turns recalled the radical drag of performance artists including John Kelly and Justin Bond, whose work critiques traditional gay culture by going “over the top” in new ways (Kelly chooses unusual subjects, like Joni Mitchell, while Bond turns cabaret into punk). His waggish self-awareness also showed the influence of musical peers such as Joanna Newsom or his friend Antony, who explore similarly archaic forms while remaining totally contempor- ary.

Without these contexts, Wainwright wouldn’t be taking Garland’s legacy forward. But his tribute wasn’t just an intellectual game. Supported by those ideas, it succeeded as an emotional inquiry into his relationship with gay culture and the showbiz tradition.

Showbiz showed up Sunday in the person of Lorna Luft, Garland’s daughter, who displayed the family vibrato on a duet with Wainwright and a song of her own. Jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli took a cool solo turn on guitar. And Wainwright’s family joined in, as usual. His mother, folk-rock star Kate McGarrigle, played piano on a couple of songs, and his sister, Martha Wainwright, delivered a startlingly great version of “Stormy Weather.” (That’s been her role in the family for years: appear, steal the show, return to a not-yet-fully-realized career.)

Ultimately, though, this was a two-character play: Rufus and Judy, the liberated scion of gay America and the idol who had inspired his elders to have the courage to achieve what freedoms he now enjoys. He had to see what of her might belong to him. This performance proves that he discovered much: great songs, a new swing in his vocal style, a new commitment to emotional honesty.

Finally, though, he returned the gift. Midway through the set, Wainwright saluted the fans who’d attended Garland’s 1961 tour, 85% of whom, he speculated, were gay men.

“It wasn’t even legal to be gay then,” he said. He then thanked those “real freedom fighters and revolutionaries” whom Garland helped inspire to fight for their rights, and who lost so much in the course of making it possible for younger men like Wainwright to be themselves. And then he sang, for those men and for Judy, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”