It can’t be easy being the sister of Liza Minnelli, let alone the daughter of Judy Garland. Especially when you’ve got singing and acting ambitions of your own. After all, as the lady in question, Lorna Luft, admits, “A legend’s a tough act to follow.”
There’s no denying that - since sharing the stage and TV screen with her mother as a child and notwithstanding a grown-up role in the film Grease 2– Luft’s career has remained fairly low-key, at least as far as British audiences are concerned. By her own account, Luft spent years trying to outrun family associations, dying her hair, carousing at Studio 54 and following six chimps and other end-of-pier acts in Atlantic City (the American equivalent of Blackpool).
In 1998, in a move some might call exploitative but what Luft refers to as “making amends with the ghost”, she published the memoir Me and My Shadows: Living with the Legacy of Judy Garland. The book became a best-seller and the basis for an Emmy award-winning TV mini-series, which Luft co-produced. Its follow-up is this one-woman stage show.
Previously a hit in Los Angeles, Songs My Mother Taught Me has now transferred to the West End and, fittingly, the Savoy, where Garland and family once resided during a stay in London. A late-night hotel escapade involving mismatched shoes is just one of the many anecdotes Luft recounts during a carefully scripted two-and-a-half hour reclamation of her mother’s memory.
Though she had tragedy in her life, Garland was not a tragic figure, Luft insists, and you’d certainly like to believe her. However, the family photos and footage screened sometimes work against this premise, showing, in later years, a frail and fearsome-looking Garland, clearly in the grips of the addiction that would prematurely end her life in 1969, when her daughter was just 16.
Some of the video clips – interwoven with Luft’s live performance to create a duet effect for the likes of “Through the Years” – are especially unsettling. There are fewer of those in the second act, when things really start to fly during a fast-paced medley telling the story of Garland’s remarkable life, from being born in a backstage trunk in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to triumph at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Powerful voices clearly run in the family and Luft belts out some beautiful numbers – including “The Man That Got Away”, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Be a Clown” (though, notably, she shies away from Garland’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow”). With the backing of a slick 11-piece orchestra, conducted by husband Colin R Freeman, it all sounds great. And with Christopher Woods’ stylish designs and Mark Henderson’s warm lighting, it all looks great too.
Comparisons are irksome but inevitable. While an evening with Lorna Luft may never hold the same appeal as one spent with Minnelli or the late Garland herself, it would seem churlish not to thank her for the memories and something more. It might not be terribly deep or insightful or even, at times, in the best of taste, but Songs My Mother Taught Me promises and delivers entertainment.