This isn’t exactly a cast recording of a show’s score, but it may be of interest in the days before the Tony Awards  are announced on June 10.

One of the nominees for “Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role In A Play” is Tracie Bennett. She plays Judy Garland in the bio-play End of the Rainbow, which has her singing nearly a dozen of Garland’s most famous songs. She’s released a recording doing some of these songs as well as other Garland hits in the style that recalls their originator.

Bennett is a British actress with quite a bit of experience in musical theater. On London stages she earned an Olivier Award for She Loves Me in 1994 and was nominated again for High Society in 2004. Les Misérables and Hairspray also appear on her resume.

With the Judy Garland role, she again copped an Olivier nomination in the London West End production. She has now transferred in the show to the Belasco Theatre in New York where she is making her Broadway debut.

Peter Quilter’s bio-play is set in London’s Ritz Hotel in December of 1968. Garland’s fans know the importance of that date. It was when she made her last London appearances at the nightclub The Talk of the Town where they became just that. It was only six months before her death of a drug overdose at age 47.

This recording of Garland numbers begins with a quick big-orchestra intro with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” after which Bennett moves on to a solo-piano backed first chorus of “Just in Time” in which she manages to summon something of the “Judy Garland Sound.” It isn’t a full-out impersonation. You aren’t likely to say “That’s Judy Garland!” so much as you will probably say “That  sounds like Judy Garland” – there’s a difference.

That difference may be a reflection of the fact that the play has her representing Garland late in her career, when she delivered more emotion than music, more energy than melody, and her songs were often representations of her persona rather than interpretations of the composers’ and lyricists’ creation.

Listen to her (Bennett’s) rendition of “Smile.” Notice the surfeit of vibrato which is so Garland-like and her tendency to let notes slip just slightly to the flat side without actually abandoning the key. It is a typical Garland arrangement with a big build in the middle and a stretch-out ending that carries the audience with her. Hear, too, the dip on “sewing” in the phrase “and for weeks they’ve been sewing” in the “For Me and My Gal” section of the medley that joins that song with other classic Garland tunes “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.” It isn’t any more a “wrong note” than many others, but it isn’t on a pitch that any other vocalist would deliver.

Garland’s delivery also shone with distinctive but immaculate enunciation. She delivered lyrics with such clarity that it became a trademark. Think the line “zing went the strings of my heart” – zing is a word that, before the song made it almost a cliché, wasn’t something you heard often enough to recognize instantly. But with Garland’s delivery, no one wondered what it was her heart did. Bennett doesn’t have to worry about anyone not knowing that the word in question is “zing” but she still delivers it with a Garlandish clarity.

The recording’s full title is Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From The Broadway Production End of the Rainbow and other Garland Classics. It includes songs not in the show such as “I Could Go On Singing,” “San Francisco” and “When The Sun Comes Out.”

She is backed by a nine piece band, none of whom are appearing on stage with her in New York. The arrangements for the album are credited to Chris Egan and the band is conducted by Gareth Valentine. For the show Egan is credited with the orchestrations and Valentine with the arrangements.

Given that Judy Garland’s own multiple performances of these songs are available, the value of this album may be more as a souvenir for those who actually see Ms. Bennett in performance. Others may well prefer to purchase the real thing.

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From The Broadway Production End of the Rainbow and other Garland Classics
Sony Masterworks
Running time: 43 minutes over 12 tracks
ASIN: N006J914VA 

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy Garland - Songs from End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics

July 10, 2014