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Jim as Judy Garland GRAND ILLUSION: JIM AS JUDY — by Gerald Nachman (taken from the San Francisco Chronicle)

SAN FRANCISO — Judy Garland was 20 minutes late opening night. Jim Bailey had a run in her stocking. This, not temperament, is what delayed the star’s entrance at Theatre on the Square, where the (very) late Miss Garland reappeared Wednesday night.

     In what remains one of the strangest, most astonishing acts ever to trod the boards, “The Incredible Jim Bailey Is Judy Garland In Concert” (as the show is officially called) arrived here from somewhere over the rainbow, where songbirds sing from beyond the grave.

     Having only seen Bailey’s Garland as a quick guest shot on TV, I wasn’t quite prepared for, nor did I especially crave, the full-length unabridged version. But even those who enter skeptical emerge believers, which may be why Bailey labels himself an illusionist rather than an impersonator, with its comic, campy overtones.

     He makes it all work by overcoming your doubts, going well beyond them into some otherworldly realm. This is no mere impression, he’s saying. This is the woman herself, lacking only the one detail — a heartbeat. There isn’t a hint of camp or comic condescension in Bailey’s Garland. He doesn’t trade on easy imitation or play to emotionalism. One measure of his long-run success as Garland (and others, who unfortunately are kept in his trunk) is that the audience listens to the songs — and reacts to them — almost as if it were Judy herself.

     It’s all quite weird and confusing at the end, when you wonder whether the audience is cheering Bailey or Garland; like a cat meowing at a painting of a saucer of milk. It takes a while to stop staring at the reincarnation, but after 45 minutes you find yourself listening as well as gawking, which becomes almost rude and slightly voyeuristic. It’s an act within an act, as reality and illusion fight for center stage, with Garland and Bailey fading in and out, overlapping, then merging into a single spirit.

     There are moments during the show when you forget it’s a show, a clever act of mimicry, and it becomes The Legend herself up there singing “You Made Me Love You,” “Zing, Went The Strings Of My Heart” and “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Bailey’s Judy is more than a mere collection of songs, inflections and gestures, almost surgically fused into a seamless personality. It’s a lot of Garland, maybe too much for some, but Bailey gives you a range of Garland to choose from; four costume changes, two hair-dos and a full wardrobe of moods — girlish, tomboyish, gaudy, glamorous, none of it distorted into caricature. It’s trompe l’oeil portraiture.

     Garland herself was more emotional and giddy onstage than Bailey, who, by underplaying her a little, keeps from tottering over into female impersonation. Judy stays life-size and appeals even to non-Garlandophile. It’s a respectful, not reverential, portrayal. He looks like her, acts like her, moves like her, laughs like her and almost incidentally, sounds like her.

     His opening Garland — in a short, snug blue skirt, four-inch heels and spangled jacket —reveals legs that Garland would have killed for, as she teeters around in pumps with that scared, imploring, look in her dark eyes, plucking nervously at a forelock and speaking in fits, starts and stifled giggles. The voice and gestures are subtly woven into an entire persona, but the detail work is amazing: Judy hugging herself, one hand cupping an elbow, the microphone cord wrapped over a shoulder or kicking it away with a perfectly rendered little backward flip of her foot.
At first, it seems a mere physical stunt and you wonder, to what purpose? But after a dozen songs, you start to revel in the brush strokes — the clutching fist and forearm against the cheek at the end of a song, her little cross-legged bows. Bailey does the songs perfectly, less quivery than the original, recalling some tunes you forgot she did, like “Just You, Just Me,” “It’s A New World” and “Maybe I’ll Come Back” (her TV theme) plus all the “Man” songs (the tunes change). In a neat touch, he adds the very song Garland would have sung had she stuck around: “I’m Still Here.” (Indeed.) More post-Garland songs might give her still added dimension, warping time even more bringing her up to date.

     While you get the idea after five songs, you don’t get the rounded creation. It’s not like a two hour Bette Davis impression, but even as mere mimicry, it’s fleshed out. Just when I thought Bailey had recalled every Garland nuance, he found new ones — her scuttling half-steps, the hand around the throat, tucking her head into a shoulder on a final note (he even has her shoulders). Bailey’s timing is as accurate as his phrasing, not just in the lyric but in the chatter. He slides in and out of Garland’s sound, but now and then he’ll hit a phrase in her range and the stage seems haunted.

     Bailey is backed by a lively brassy 11-man ensemble that, in it’s own bit of impersonation, sound like a huge 30-piece Las Vegas orchestra, led by pianist Andy Howel. Try as you do, it’s difficult to find the man behind the women, but it must be said that Bailey himself is a sure singer, an obvious if obscured fact, coming into his own on “You’re Nearer.” Makeup and heels can’t sing. It is, to be sure, an awful lot of Judy Garland, so it’s too bad Bailey isn’t able to return in Act II, if for only a few songs, as one of his other mirror images, Barbra Streisand. Or even . . . well, no. I suppose Liza Minnelli might be stretching it.

Copyright 2005 Jim Bailey. All rights reserved.