Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Biscuits for Breakfast presents “Somewhere under the Rainbow”: A musical drama performed by a young Liza Minnelli. Written and directed by Cillian O’Donnachadha, this one woman show has Liza (played by Sharon Sexton) reminiscing on being the daughter of the great Judy Garland, on her first steps in show business and on her descent into drug dependency. Sexton sings, talks, tap dances, cries real tears and, at all times, has the audience in the palm of her hand.
A piece of film footage showing Judy Garland singing about the delights of knowing her daughter Liza opens the show. Sexton’s Minnelli makes her entrance down the centre auditorium staircase in an ivory dressing gown. She belts out a classic number from the celebrated musical “Gypsy” and smoulders across the small set. Then, whilst preparing for a performance, she recounts moments with her “Mama”, some funny, some sad, some deeply touching. It’s clear though that there’s a big difference between “Mama” and Judy Garland.
Garland’s reluctance for any of her children to follow her into the world of show business was thwarted at Liza’s birth. How could anyone born to Garland and the film maker Vincente Minnelli, and who’d had Frank Sinatra celebrate their arrival, not end up in the industry? She cites her teenage viewing of Ethel Merman as “Mama” in Gypsy on Broadway as the catalyst. From then on she feels the pull of the stage. Telling her insecure mother of her ambitions was not the ordeal she expected but, whilst encouraged, it was clear she was going to have to be financially independent. Sure, the Garland and Minnelli connections opened doors and got her auditions but she had to come up with the goods and be the real deal.
Minnelli looks at us with those big eyes, heavy with their false eyelashes, recalling stories of her manipulation to get the parts she wanted, her successful immersion in the film role of Sally Bowles – despite the rejection from the original theatre cast – and the fierce lobbying that managed to override a producer’s reluctance to cast her in the lead of Flora and the Red Menace where she triumphs by winning a Tony Award for her performance. She recalls how her mother’s initial pride turns to professional jealousy when she realises that Liza is a star in her own right and of the pact they make never to appear on stage together again.
Then we hear of the horror and pain that is the death of a loved one; someone that society feels it owns. The public grieving she must endure and her survival instinct of sound bites and valium that cushion the experience but inevitably lead to rehab. Here she begins to unravel and we see that everything about Liza is contrived and rehearsed. She ends with an acknowledgement of her father’s influence, a celebration of the opposites they were. He would encourage her to be a different person everyday asking, “Who do you want to be today?”, then making it happen. She, however, was always more cautious.
The show is set in the familiar backstage dressing room with a cleverly placed dressing table that allows her to break the old rule and play with her back to the audience. The lighting compliments her chameleonic changes from the intimate and warm Liza to Minnelli, the spot lit performer. There’s subtle direction from O’Donnachadha with the miming of early parts of the performance – reiterating her superficiality. The musical accompaniment is mostly solo piano, carefully balanced between the narrative and sung words. This is a vibrant and slickly timed show: The songs are big, meandering show tunes with changes of meter and huge finales. At times half spoken, half sung, Sexton is effortlessly able to move her voice up the gears necessary for the bigger sections.
To play someone as well known as Liza Minnelli was always going to be a big ask but Sharon Sexton rises to the challenge and is eerily her. Her precise and exact portrayal encompasses every nuance that is that celebrity. She projects the heavy lidded kooky bright eyed ingénue with that familiar stammer and quiver in her voice. There are cheeky poses, quirky asides and the wonderful drawl that accompanies her perfectly timed punch lines. The songs are big are demanding and she acquits herself well. She includes favourites such as”Maybe this Time”, and even performs the full Bob Fosse choreographed chair routine from Cabaret for “Mein Herr”. If you are a fan of Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli and a purist about it, you won’t be disappointed.