Upstage headliner Ali Harper set to portray cinema legend

Ali Harper is a master storyteller, using her voice to pay tribute to some of the most well-known names of the stage and screen.

Her show Ali Sings Judy Garland – set to make its deep south debut during the inaugural Upstage: Invercargill Festival of Cabaret – is no different.

The show be held on Friday August 11, where the Invercargill audience will be treated to a seat on-stage at the Civic Theatre: cabaret-style.

The glamorous opening night soiree will also see an aerial silks performance from South Pole Dance.

“I have been in the entertainment business for more than 30 years. As an actor, singer, writer, and producer, which makes for a life that is very colourful and busy,” Harper said.

“I have always loved the challenge to play another person, or just be myself and tell stories – stories that my audiences connect with, or stories that educate in both an intellectual or emotional way.”

Earlier this year, Harper brought her show A Natural Woman: Celebrating the Music of Carol King to Invercargill. Her interest then turned to another celebrated musical figure: Judy Garland, she said.

“I played Judy in a play called End of the Rainbow earlier this year, and it piqued my interest to approach her from a different angle,” Harper said.

“I love researching and finding new ways to dive deep into a well-known person, to celebrate their achievements that obviously made them famous in the first place, but also their tenacity and resilience to overcome obstacles in their lives.”

The American actress, singer and dancer solidified her legend status thanks to roles in films including Meet Me in St Louis (1944), A Star Is Born (1954) and – of course – as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Garland’s career achievements were many: among her accolades, an Academy Juvenile Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Special Tony Award, her title as the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 1961 Golden Globes, and a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and more.

Garland was nearly as famous for her personal tragedies and struggles as her entertainment career.

It was Garland’s complexities, and her humanity, that Harper found most compelling.

“She was a ‘star’ but also a wife – many times over – and a mother. She had a childhood that was influenced by the movie industry, and led her to have a life full of addictions and heartache – yet she kept performing and doing what she loved, no matter what was thrown at her,” Harper said.

“Everyone knows Judy played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and that her daughter is Liza Minnelli. Because of the movie Judy people know more about how her addictions began and so, I think, would have come away after watching it less judgmental about the troubled life she had. Yes, she was talented, but what many don’t know is that she was incredibly smart. She could memorise a song after one run-through, and was intuitive and musically brilliant.”

With such a storied career, there was no shortage of highs when it came to playing Garland, Harper said.

“I love many of her songs, but the moment where I sing Over the Rainbow and honour her in this special way is a highlight. All that she managed to do in her short life, the way she touched people, and her ability to remain in our hearts through her music – there are so many highlights,” Harper said.

But, like Judy’s life, the highs came with challenges, too.

“The vocal stamina required to sing in Judy’s full, melodic, powerful style means I have to take a more athletic approach to how I deliver the show,” Harper said. “Her distinctive vibrato, her rich tone, and her masterful phrasing is incredible. I haven’t made my job easy, that’s for sure. However, like Judy – I love a challenge!”

Keen to secure your spot at the gala opening of Upstage: Invercargill Festival of Cabaret? Book your tickets to Ali Sings Judy Garland here.