Upstage: Invercargill Festival of Cabaret – Ali Sings Judy Garland

The first-ever Upstage: Invercargill Festival of Cabaret has started with a bang.

The nine-day festival kicked off with headliner Ali Harper performing for an on-stage, cabaret-style audience at the city’s Civic Theatre.

The scene was set right from the start: bubbles and canapés in the foyer, with a side of daring aerial hoop feats performed from the team at South Pole Dance. Their incredible display of athleticism and grace carried on once guests made their way to the stage, where aerial silks were added to the repertoire.

With its ambient and romantic lighting, it was all too easy to imagine the grande dame of Invercargill’s arts and culture scene was instead a dimly-lit, smoky cabaret club. The perfect setting for one of Hollywood’s greats to step behind the microphone.

The audience waited with bated breath. The live band – a pianist and double bassist – took their places and the lights went down.

But Judy Garland was nowhere to be seen.

The announcer tried again – and then, that distinctive voice.

Kiwi chanteuse Ali Harper knows how to make an entrance, and in character as the renowned but troubled starlet, she did just that. Judy took to the stage, her self-deprecating humour the starting point of a show that delved into the Hollywood legend’s complexity.

From the tenderness of Embraceable You, to the razzmatazz of Puttin’ On The Ritz and There’s No Business Like Show Business, and the classic musical number The Trolley Song from Meet Me in St. Louis, Harper not only sang her heart out – her ability to mimic Garland’s athleticism while singing incredibly impressive – but captured the richness of who Garland was as a person.

The show masterfully danced around the edges of the trouble that belied the beloved movie star’s persona. Even Judy’s account of the pressure producers put the then 16-year-old to lose weight for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (alternating prescriptions of amphetamines to suppress her appetite, sleeping pills to mask the subsequent insomnia; a restrictive diet of black coffee and bowls of chicken soup) were portrayed as a light-hearted anecdote, before trailing off into despair.

The show jumped back into a mountain of highs, before Judy bid the crowd farewell – with cries for an encore inevitable.

A hush fell over the crowd, though, as the solemn voice of the pianist rang out: recounting how, just eight months after her tour to Australia, Judy died of a barbiturate overdose aged a mere 47.

No homage to Judy Garland would be complete without a rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Harper’s was all the more stirring in its sadness.