Review: It's Deja Vu All Over Again as 'Rufus Does Judy At Capitol Studios'

by Rob Lester

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 10, 2022

Review: It's Deja Vu All Over Again as 'Rufus Does Judy At Capitol Studios'
  (Source:BMG)

Intense performer Rufus Wainwright has gone back to the well that is the well-traveled Judy Garland repertoire to drink in more of her music — and his cup runneth over, as he actually stands and sings in the place where she did.

If this idea and the set list seem familiarly been-there/done-that, your memory is not playing tricks. Once upon a time (2006), the up-for-a-challenge Wainwright stepped onto Carnegie Hall's stage and recreated, song by song, nuance by nuance, arrangement by arrangement, the legendary 1961 concert Garland did there. The uber-fan's live uber-tribute was released on CD, plus there was a DVD of the salute done at the London Palladium. So what do we have on the market now? Is this recycling radiantly redone, or merely redundant?

It might seem underwhelming to trot it all out again, but, on its own merits, this album merits applause. The songs feel more lived in, intimate, and in tune with how this guy feels and inhabits them, beyond channeling the legendary lady so slavishly. After all, avid collectors of live albums by big stars do end up with lots of the same-old/same-old standbys that get standing ovations. And Rufus might justify his own revisit with the last line of the (included) "Over the Rainbow," asking then, "Why, oh why can't I?" The passion and pathos are still there. The ballads are especially haunting, deep, and searingly introspective.

As with many things these days, we can blame the damn pandemic for the "Why?" Last year, with live performances with big audiences hardly an option, restless Rufus did some streamlined streaming concerts. He decided to haul out the Carnegie Hall project. With that venue not in the cards, another spot with Garland glory was chosen: The place where she made many records, including versions of what became concert staples. Thus the release's title, "Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios." He even got to use the microphone she used.

Instead of a large orchestra, Wainwright employed just four very fine face-masked players. Instead of a full house, he had an audience of exactly one person: Notably, none other than the actress who played Garland in the film "Judy," Renée Zelweger. At the time, he was the same age as she was when she died (47), and the audio release of last year's streamed event is timed to June 10, the 100th anniversary of Garland's birth.

Wainwright does the pain right, turning yearning, again, into an art form. When he cozies up to more drama-free contentment, he can give lots of love to "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," while "Just You, Just Me" is joyful. The out gay singer is in tune with the gay icon whose memory and legacy he sweetly honors.

In its best moments, this close-up, scaled-down approach is a laser beam to the heart of each song. It is a triumphant argument for the theory that "less Is more" when it comes to communicating emotion.

Not so much in that "less Is more" reality is the number of items heard this time around; the "Capitol Studios" release in digital or physical CD form has just 12 patter-less tracks from the virtual event, compared to the 27-track predecessor. But what is culled can be called classic, such as the track that is the three-song medley of early movie hits, and standards by major writers of the Great American Songbook, most prominently Harold Arlen and the Gershwins. The outlier exception to the Carnegie Hall memories is the memorable counterpoint combo concocted for Garland's TV series when she and Barbra Streisand intertwined "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again." Taking the Barbra part is guest Kristin Chenoweth. The chemistry doesn't generate the historic electricity, but it's loyal, fond, and fun.

And he's far from done Garland-gathering! Here are some US live dates featuring the material:

June 10 - New York, NY - City Winery (Two Shows)

June 16 - Chicago, IL - City Winery (Two Shows)

June 17 - Chicago, IL - City Winery (Two Shows)

A European tour follows.

"Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios" is available as of June 10 in digital and CD form and is on the BMG label.

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at www.TalkinBroadway.com for almost 15 years.