There was an initial awkwardness, which is to be expected when any performer who has been deceased for nearly 40 years returns to the stage for a live concert accompanied by an orchestra. But by the time Judy Garland was singing her signature interpretation of "You Made Me Love You," with her wild doe eyes scanning Symphony Hall, the strangeness of the situation began to fade and an audience started falling for Garland all over again. Correction Judy: You made us love you.
"Judy Garland Live in Concert" may have been a bit of a misnomer, but after a handful of songs, Saturday's sold-out performance certainly started feeling like a live concert. Conceived by John Fricke, a gentleman regarded as the country's foremost Garland historian, "Live in Concert" was an astonishing achievement, both technically and artistically. To re-create the effect of a live concert, audio was stripped away from filmed performances of Garland's 1963-1964 Emmy-nominated CBS series, along with other televised concert footage. This video was then flawlessly synched to vocal tracks that Garland recorded for albums produced during the same era. Where there were no known recordings to match the video, the Symphony Hall audience heard the hissing audio from the original mono television broadcast.
The video and audio of Garland - which was shown on three giant screens over the stage - was backed by live orchestration from the Boston Pops. Led by the very spirited Doug Katsaros, the Pops did exactly what every good orchestra should do with Judy Garland: fade into the background. It was impossible for the Pops to outshine the singer - although they occasionally overpowered her vocals - and despite a few technical glitches, Katsaros gallantly managed the exhausting job of keeping the orchestra perfectly in time with a very real ghost of Garland.
Thirty-nine years after her death, it is easy to generalize Garland's legacy as that of the "Wizard of Oz" child star who grew up into a pill-popping gay icon. But "Judy Garland Live in Concert" showed that in the early 1960s she was still an incredibly vital and accomplished live performer. When she sang the heartbreaking "A Cottage for Sale," her face conveyed just as much pain as her stunningly lovely vocals. Yes, she was a belter, but unlike the brassy steamrolling vocals of Ethel Merman, Garland's vocal prowess was matched by an ability to live inside the emotional message of her songs. There are no singers today who match her combination of wit, warmth, humor, and skill.
Watching a petite, 40-something Garland singing "Swanee" as she stormed the stage in tight stretch pants, a pair of flats, and a festive sequin blouse was far more exhilarating than it should have been, and the Symphony Hall audience was riveted. The crowd responded to these black-and-white time capsule performances as if Garland was in the room. When giant video Garland started singing "The Trolley Song," the audience put its hands together as soon as Garland sang the words "With my high starched collar . . ." It only fell flat on rare occasions where the audio and the video felt mismatched, such as an odd, grainy performance of "Over the Rainbow."
Fricke, who worked on the show for nearly two years, took advantage of the video component to put the singer's life in context with vignettes and interviews that traced Garland's trajectory from playing vaudeville to her death from an accidental overdose in 1969.
There were reminders of the challenges she faced - failed marriages, pill dependency, and a near-fatal brush with hepatitis - but "Live in Concert" was most effective at showing her love of entertaining, and how that love can still completely enthrall a live audience.