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Review: Judy at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Nicola Bennett

The legendary status of Judy Garland is firmly placed in the minds and hearts of people worldwide. To approach any creative representation of her and her difficult life story carries a great responsibility to do justice to her and those who loved her. Skunkworks Productions brings ‘Judy. Australia. 1964.” to Melbourne audiences with all of the respect and heart it deserves, as it explores one of Judy’s most pivotal performance moments at the height of her personal struggles.

Judy Garland’s ill-fated tour to Australia captured the essence of Garland’s later life, with soaring success in her Sydney performance rapidly juxtaposed with emotional freefall by the time she reached Melbourne. Over the course of the show’s hour performance, the audience witnesses Judy’s rapid decline just as her 1964 Australian audiences would have, with undoubtedly the same mixture of awe and sadness that her story evokes.

Bill Farr’s writing for the show is well finessed, balancing Judy’s theatrical grandeur with more vulnerable moments later in the show without overdramatising her decline. Judy’s dialogue is relatively limited for the most part of the show, often leaving her vocal power to speak for itself and her state of mind. There is more candid dialogue in the later part of the show, giving us more poignant insight into the exhausted woman behind the powerful vocals. Overall it was an appropriate balance of structured dialogue and some of Judy Garland’s better known tunes.

Performed to melodic perfection, the role of Judy Garland was triumphant in the hands of experienced performer Liane Keegan. Equipped with a strong operatic background, Keegan brings international performance experience to the role of Judy, tastefully capturing her highs and lows over the course of the performance. Momentary early nerves aside, Keegan delights the audience with her quick wit and warmth. Her vocal performance goes from strength to strength, from her upbeat rendition of ‘Swanee’ (from the 1954 film ‘A Star is Born’) to the heartbreaking performance of ‘Smile’ as Judy’s internal struggles begin to take hold. The song set is heavily populated by Garlands’s big hits, which was evidently popular judging by the regularity of audience swaying and nods of recognition as each number begins. However the credit for the audience’s rapturous response throughout and at the conclusion of the evening goes rightly to Liane Keegan and her indisputable talent.

Keegan is supported onstage by Alistair Frearson, who supplies the narrative of the performance in his depiction of Harry M. Miller, the renowned promoter and publicist who arranged Judy Garland’s tour of Australia. His appearances are fleeting but suitably informative, bringing Miller’s experience of big dreamer turned crisis manager to life without distracting from Garland’s own struggles.

A production that relies predominantly on vocal performance cannot slump on its supporting music, and this is a factor that rises to the challenge of its highly skilled lead. Full credit to the production’s musical director and conductor Phillipa Edwards for leading an ensemble to produce such a punchy and balanced range of numbers. The brass section in particular creates such an effective “big band” effect that bring a suitably showbiz effect to the overall performance.

To deliver a production that carries such depth at such an early stage of the company’s work is a clear indicator of great things to come. This truly is a theatrical ode to all that Judy was - glamorous, moving, and above all, a very human experience. Congratulations to all involved at Skunkworks Productions for this beautiful concept and delivery.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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