Stop the presses — Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Keely Smith and Marilyn Monroe will be joining forces to perform in Newport Beach next week.
Well, sort of.
Bethany Owen, the “Woman of 1001 Voices and Faces,” will bring the four favorites to a one-night appearance Aug. 13 at the Balboa Bay Club.
A singing impersonator par excellence with a dazzling collection of costumes, wigs and routines, Owen can swap in seconds from Madonna to Martha Stewart, Britney Spears to Barbra Streisand.
Hard to imagine that it all started with Edith Bunker.
The fictional New Yorker with the memorably shrill voice from “All in the Family” was Owen’s first impersonation. It led her on a path she never could have foreseen when she was an aspiring ballerina.
Owen has since become a well-known singing phenomenon who has performed around the country, and has a long-running one-woman comic revue in Lake Tahoe that features a staggering array of impressions and onstage costume swaps.
Her song and dance abilities combine with an uncanny facility to capture each character’s most minute voice inflections and facial expressions. Owen’s classically balanced (and easily mutable) facial features help carry each impression to dizzying heights.
Owen said the upcoming show with the Laguna Beach Swing Set big band is going to be quite different from her usual act; by focusing on just four characters, she will have the chance to fully change costumes and develop each personality.
“I don’t think that many people get to see whole swing band orchestras with impersonators, so that’s going to be really novel,” she said. “They usually perform with a singer, but never a singer dressed up as a legendary character — and it will be really novel for me, too. In my one-woman show, I don’t perform with musicians. I have a backup tape. So for me it’s a big thrill to have a live band, and these guys are quite accomplished. Ed Peterson, the conductor, is an accomplished musician, and the nicest, sweetest guy you could ever meet.”
A change of pace
Owen’s father was a Southern aeronautical engineer who had his daughter take dance lessons, and always wanted her to sing country music. Her family moved all over the country before finally settling in Huntington Beach.
“My father was always an encouraging factor in my life,” Owen said.
Her younger brother also had a gift for impersonations, and often imitated cartoon voices from television shows, but opted not to go onstage with his gifts.
“He was too shy to get up there, whereas I had had been taking dance lessons since I was 6,” Owen said. “But I think little things like that do plant seeds in your head. Our talents always mirrored each other.”
Owen said her dance instructors always told her that she tended to “act out” each dance with facial expressions and other body language.
“But I never vocalized,” she said. “Sometimes, as a dancer, you’re led to believe that vocalizing is something for the vocalist, not the dancer, so I never attempted to sing when I was growing up.”
Owen instead aspired to become a professional dancer. But her hopes and dreams were dashed at 17, when she contracted a virus that left doctors puzzled for a year — and kept her away from the barre, a handrail use in ballet.
For a dancer, the late teenage years are critical. Owen missed important auditions for large dance companies, so she decided to turn her aspirations toward choreography for show bands. She began working with a touring Los Angeles band.
“It was with that show band that I began to do backup, and pretty soon the band realized that I had some vocal ability,” Owen said. “I actually think they were a little jealous. We did a TV segment later, so they gave me the voice of Edith Bunker. But then people said they came to see the show just to hear the 30 seconds of Edith Bunker, so the producer said that if I can nail one voice, I should work on some more.
“That was really the birth of my working on other voices. … It’s one thing to do Edith Bunker, who doesn’t sing on-key, but it’s another to aspire to do singers who really have a voice, like Judy Garland. I spent long hours listening to her albums.”
Owen soon became the star of the show, and her repertoire of vocal and physical impersonations expanded.
It would have been easy to stick with impressions that were an easy match for her vocal range and facial features, but Owen never considered it, she said.
She’s taken on everybody from Diana Ross to Cher.
“I don’t think of characters in terms of what’s easy and what’s hard,” Owen said. “Obviously singing like somebody like Judy Garland was quite a challenge, but at the beginning of my vocal career I listened to her and Liza all the time. So I never look at something and say, ‘This is too difficult,’ or ‘This is less difficult to tackle.’ I have to really enjoy and love each character I do.”
Owen regularly incorporates new characters into her standard one-woman show, including (most recently) Larry the Cable Guy’s mother, characters from “The Beverly Hillbillies”, Ellen DeGeneres and Christiane Amanpour.
When asked whether Lady Gaga is in her future, Owen said she’s written a parody, but is still working on the pop star’s legendarily ludicrous costume.
But despite introducing new and topical characters, one thing always remains the same: Without fail, Owen ends the night with Judy Garland.
“I know what characters get the strongest reactions,” she said. “There’s a reason why I close the show with Judy. She touches people.”
If You Go
Who: Bethany Owen and the Laguna Beach Swing Set
What: “A Swingin’ Affair”
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 13; doors open at 5:30 p.m.; outdoor barbecue will be available for purchase
Where: Balboa Bay Club, 1221 Coast Hwy., Newport Beach
Information: (949) 630-4120 or bethanyowen.net