★★★★★ | Holly Penfield Sings Judy Garland

Holly Penfield Sings Judy Garland Live At The Talk Of The Town 5 Stars! Legendary Lightning Strikes Again!

Do tribute shows suck? Only if they’re X-factor auto-tune abortions, or clueless samplings of a legendary legacy. But this, my dears, is neither; Holly Penfield sings Judy Garland is grit, discipline and commitment from the bones up.

That’s obvious even from the audience. It’s fifteen minutes to showtime, and already, the conversational buzz is fierce, seething white noise punctuated by clinking drinks. Where? The Talk Of The Town, darlings, now more prosaically renamed the Hippodrome. But oh yes, the old, theatrical magic still lingers, in the venue’s stellar show-room designed by incomparable theatre designer Frank Matcham. Listen close – or just imagine softly, if you can, and you’ll still catch the faint, psychic echoes of Judy Garland performing here in her matchless, 1960’s heydey. And tonight, another fiercely disciplined diva – Miss Holly Penfield – is about to offer her vocal riches to the looming spirit of her idol, Judy. And what unique vocal riches she has; a stone, white soul chick groove coloured by the joyous bounce of Dusty Springfield, the sensual growl of Janis Joplin, and the surgically dainty jazz chops of Dinah Shore.

Still, it’s a daunting task, one not remotely suited to 8 shows a week, and twice on Sundays. No, this is a singular work of love and deeply grounded artistry, a sacrifice lesser talents would back horrified away from. Not Holly. A jazz and rock singing veteran of thousands of gigs, she’s defiantly preparing to walk the walk she talks, whatever the cost. Will she? Won’t she, pay the price? And now – right now – the verdict’s in.

Soooo… what a superb, solo tribute to Judy Garland jazz diva Holly Penfield delivered at the London Hippodrome on March 28th.

Bursting with chutzpah and aplomb, and simply on fire throughout, Holly’s pouting physicality and darkly gorgeous, smoked-honey vocals totally revitalised Judy’s trademark songbook for the 21st century.

Sure, Rufus Wainwright attempted similar excellence a few years back – and vocally, it’s like trying to climb a sonic Mount Everest or act King Lear solo – but Rufus lacks both Holly’s magisterial stage presence and her ferocious joy in her own femininity. My God, she brings such passion to each song, it’s as if she’s giving live birth to Judy’s Tin Pan Alley offspring onstage!

Simply astounding? Oh yes indeed; it’s vocal noir from moment one. Entering side-stage, all blue spangles, alabaster skin and killer, black Louise Brooks bob, she’s an exotic bouquet lushly unfurling for her audience, a simmering flower of sensuality. And more bewitchingly still, she’s literally poured Judy’s unmistakable physicality into every one of her long, willow-elegant limbs. As if startlingly blown up life-size, fresh and limber from the grave, there’s Judy’s haughty, shuffle-shouldered denial, and her wrenching, little-lost-film-star blown on amphetamines, plus that mischievously infectious ease that made fans feel Judy was serenading them straight from her living-room floor. It’s brilliant physical mimicry, a living, singing character study in each dimension worth naming. Having established a flawless, audience intimacy, no wonder Holly slips into trademark, Judy pants.

Make no mistake; this is no dull, dead-on its-beat tribute show; Holly’s far too accomplished an artist for
that, a Zeitgeist Queen surfing cultural waves faster than they can break.

In common with Gaga, Daphne Guinness, Anna Calvi and other, mischievous mavericks, Holly reweaves the past with the present, the possible future and her own, startlingly original muse to make it thrillingly new. A sterling example? Playing one of her own, deeply personal songs a lá Judy, fusing new and old like a master beauty surgeon.

Puzzled? Don’t be; mix, match, but scratch from the heart is today’s crucial beat from the street, the ability to tear sacred cows from their pedestals and petrol-bomb them in heartfelt, personal fire.

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And guess what? Holly’s been doing since birth! A more mature Gaga, more steeped in musicality than a Method-acting Mozart, she’s tirelessly fused art, life, love and wide-screen, solo theatricality into a style, a sheer presence, uniquely her own.

It shows. Never, ever taking gigs for granted – especially this one – Holly treats every show as more than life and death, a Roman Arena test of competence. And serenading Judy – Holly’s personal idol – almost demands a sacrifice of spiritual blood. Accordingly, Holly gives everything she can possibly can to the packed, eager audience – she’s even changed her body shape to Judy style, in a savagely dedicated work regime.

Has it paid off? Well tonight, better than stealing the Crown Jewels! Quentin Crisp once told me that Californian women stalk the streets like she-panthers, all fire and lethal elegance; and judged that way, Holly’s the Killer Queen of passionate pussies, an Eartha Kitt Catwoman let loose and frantic to play!

Forget flawless recreation, or awed reverence at Judy’s often lonesome, foghorn legacy; Madame Penfield sinuously stalks, undulates, purrs and finally pounces on many of Judy’s treasured gems, licking vibrant, vocal blood from them like hunks of gorgeous, classic songbook meat.

Crude? Indiscriminate? Not at all; instead, there’s a sublime understanding, a ghostly communiqúe that defies rational understanding and sets mass goosebumps rising. Undoubtedly, Holly feels it too;
‘Are you there, Judy?’, she husks, ‘It’s getting awful lonely up here…’

Not for long; suddenly, it’s mass séance time as two blithe, Noel Coward spirit-sisters – Judy and Holly – seamlessly blend. Stunningly, Holly’s host-body – apparently channelling Judy direct from the Big Beyond – adds both singer’s unique brilliance to the mix.

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Instantly gaining Judy’s tornado lung-power, woodwind contralto and rich, plump-to-the-ear vowels, Holly intuitively soufflés Garland’s big guns with her own signature, inimitable, micro-shifts of emphasis, phrasing and emotional revelation. It’s no bulldozing, unsubtle pastiche, but an incredible, on-the-spot recreation of Garland’s classic songs as if newly sung that moment.

Unbelievable? In any singer less assured and empathic than Holly, yes, but shockingly, even all-out showboats like ‘The Trolley Song’ gain an emotive, Juliet Greco intimacy Judy’s cavernous attack often missed. And add Holly’s precision-aimed micro-yearning to Judy’s great, aching love-songs – ‘The Man That Got Away’, ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ etc – and overblown, lungs-to-the-gallery love becomes searing, Billie Holliday heartache. Oh, it’s not that Judy was insensitive to nuance, but Holly simply owns it, and bleeds it masterfully into Judy’s hallmark delivery.

Better yet, buoyed on her soaring band of ecstatically erotic, blue to the bone drums, sax and keyboards, Miss Penfield tinges each of Judy’s torch songs with a throaty, glissading timbre, a longing for lost, Garland-style love that’s more piercing than Tennessee Wlliams’ tragedy queens combined. It’s that ability, that singular capacity to give herself not only body, blood and soul to every show, but musically and empathically too, that skyscrapers Holly’s tribute – and solo shows – to another level envied by less ferociously giving singers. Now, there’s an infamous quote that reads, ‘If you can’t be someone else, always be a first-rate version of yourself’.

Holly live – and her adoring audiences – are living proof that she is exactly that. Go watch her and dream
that every West End show could make you weep with joy.

About the author: Sasha Selavie
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