By R. J. Donovan
Special to The BIR
Actress-singer Kathy St. George knows a little something about legends. As readers of the Reporter will recall, she is a descendant of the folks who owned historic Tyrone House in Galway. She can also trace her roots back to the owners of the St. George Hotel (originally the Conarchy Hotel) in Dublin’s Parnell Square.
This month, fresh from winning a Norton Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress, she takes on a legend of another sort in presenting a very personal tribute to Judy Garland in her one-woman show, “Dear Miss Garland,” playing at Stoneham Theatre through July 22.
Award-winning Scott Edmiston, who helped her write the show, directs the production, which contains all of Garland’s hits from “The Man That Got Away” and “You Made Me Love You” to “Get Happy” and “Over the Rainbow.”
Like so many others, Kathy fell in love with Garland while watching “The Wizard of Oz.” As a performer, she has become indelibly linked with Garland in doing a spot-on impression of the iconic singer in her cabaret act. In 2007, she starred in the somewhat dark “And Now Ladies & Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland” in Boston. And in “Ruthless” at SpeakEasy Stage, she channeled a very funny parody of Garland that became one of the highlights of the show.
“Dear Miss Garland” is what Kathy describes as a love letter in song. “I never got to write Judy a fan letter, so this show is my letter to her,” she says. Part theater and part concert, the evening brings Garland to life through some of her biggest hits as well as some intimate confessions.
We spoke about “Dear Miss Garland” last month during a break in rehearsals. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.
Q. I know you’ve been a Garland fan for a long time, but when did you first do her music on stage?
A. We were doing a show – “1940s Radio Jive” – at Club Cafe that had moved to Martha’s Vineyard. And one night on the Vineyard, one of the actresses lost her voice. And the director said, “Filler! Filler! We need filler!” And I said, “I can do the whole movie of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ “ And he said, “Okay, go ahead!” And that was how I started doing “The Wizard of Oz” and Judy songs. And since then I’ve always done Judy songs in my cabaret show.
Q. And then came “Ruthless.”
A. That was such a joy. [Director] Larry Cohen said that at the end of Act One my character goes from a meek and mild hausfrau into a diva. So one night, in rehearsal, just to make him laugh, I started doing my Judy impersonation. And he loved it. He loved it so much he said, “Let’s keep it, let’s keep it!” But I was doing her way over the top, and slightly drunk and slightly slurring her words.
Q. And then there was “Ladies & Gentlemen...” which used Garland’s own words for the off-stage section and then moved into a concert.
A. [Producer] Deb Poppel said to me, “You always talk about doing a Judy show. Why don’t we write one together. I’ll help you and I’ll produce it. And I said great. And then she said that Tony McLean was a huge Judy fan and was interested in coming on board.
Q. But your own creation, “Dear Miss Garland,” has a very different tone.
A. [In 2009], Weylin Symes [Producing Artistic Director at Stoneham Theater] said he’d love me to bring a Judy show to Stoneham, but I didn’t want to do the same one. I wanted to make it a little more audience-friendly and a little more musical and a little more upbeat for the first act . . . And we added a seven-piece band. It did so well that Weylin asked me to bring it back this summer.
Q. What kind of research did you do?
A. It was exhausting. Watching all the movies. Reading everything I could get my hands on. Of course, I watched Judy clips over and over on YouTube to get the right feel.
Q. People tend to remember the hardships in her life, but she had a very sharp sense of humor.
A. In the show, I have a quote from when she performed on Boston Common. [In Judy’s voice] -- There were an awful lot of bugs involved with that outdoor concert, and a bug flew into my mouth. If you’re singing “Get Happy,” you can go [spit] but not during “Over The Rainbow.” So I tucked him in my cheek with my tongue. He fluttered about for a chorus and a half. I had the finest vibrato ever that night!
Q. What can audiences expect when they come to see “Dear Miss Garland” in Stoneham?
A. The first act is just me and Jim Rice on piano. It’s more about me being a fan. How it started for me. We open with “Born in a Trunk” . . . I personalize it. I didn’t grow up in show business but I talk about my first audition [at Salem State College], and then Judy’s first audition [at MGM]. We’ve added a song, “How About You,” so I do a duet with Jim encapsulating a Mickey & Judy Moment. The first act I’d say is more about her movies . . . “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” “Be A Clown” . . . How she fell in love with Vincent Minnelli. She did have five husbands altogether. How she was always searching for the right man – but he always got away.
Q. And the second act?
A. I come out with my seven-piece band (for a concert) . . . the great thing is we have the entire band back. Every musician came back from three years ago. They all wanted to do it again.
Q. Is there one moment that you really connect with personally?
A. “It Never Was You” from her movie “I Could Go On Singing.” It’s the longing. I can identify with that so deeply. The longing that she had for someone – for the right person. And to be always searching and never finding. The other day, I started crying as I started singing the song because I found that person. In my husband.
Q. Judy Garland was one of those rare artists, who, like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, remain true icons. She was really one-of-a-kind, wasn’t she?
A. She came alive on stage. The way she just provoked this frenzy! When you watch the clips it’s extraordinary . . . She poured her heart out on stage. She let it out and you just embraced her more for that. The more pain, the more love, the more joy. She was phenomenal.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
“Dear Miss Garland,” through July 22 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham. Tickets: 781-279-2200; stonehamtheatre.org.