On April 23, 1961, 3000 music lovers packed New York City’s Carnegie Hall to witness a monumental moment in show business history — a live concert by the legendary singer and actress, Judy Garland.
The original recording of that evening’s performance, Judy at Carnegie Hall, shot to the top of the Billboard charts, was certified gold, and even won four Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, making Judy Garland the first woman to ever receive that honor.
Since it’s release in 1961, the album has never gone out of print.
On Sunday June 23, 2019, music lovers packed Asbury Park, NJ’s Paramount Theatre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Garland’s death in June of 1969 with a performance of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert, hosted by Garland’s daughter, singer and actress Lorna Luft.
Andrew DePrisco, artistic director of Deal Park, NJ’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center, welcomes the crowd. A co-presentation of Axelrod PAC and the Paramount Theatre, DePrisco thanks the sponsors in addition to those working behind the scenes of tonight’s tribute, notably singer and music archivist Michael Feinstein who recently said about tonight’s performance, “This is the first time the Garland concert will be performed with meticulous research and preparation, giving listeners a true sense of what the orchestra really sounded like in 1961.”
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The 39-piece orchestra stands as conductor Michael Berkowitz takes his place center stage, the grand architecture of the theater graced by a golden iridescent back curtain that envelopes him and the musicians.
Berkowitz raises his baton to open tonight’s concert with an instrumental “Overture” of Judy Garland classics including “The Trolley Song,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “The Man That Got Away.”
Building in dynamics and mood, the living and breathing orchestra’s swinging instrumental performance builds in dynamics and mood, the percussion beating as strings whirl and swirl about the stage. The crystal clear sound inspires audience members to rise to their feet.
Lorna Luft enters the stage, takes a deep bow, and welcomes the audience saying, “Hello, Asbury Park!”
Announcing, “50 years ago, the world lost a legend,” Luft talks about her mother, Judy Garland. Calling her “an incredible person,” Luft reveals that at the tender age of nine, she was in the audience at Carnegie Hall when her mother presented the original 1961 concert that will be recreated here at the Paramount tonight.
Recalling, “Everyone was dressed up in fantastic gowns and jewelry, and the men were in tuxedos,” Luft exclaims, “and when when my mother came out, they all went bananas!”
Continuing, “I never saw adults act like that,” Luft praises tonight’s orchestra, calling their sound “stunning” and inviting the audience to “sit back, relax, and have a wonderful time.”
This evening’s program consists of all 25 numbers originally performed by Judy Garland at her historic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Tonight, they are not only performed by Luft, but by four additional talented singers as well: Joan Ellison, Debbie Gravitte, Karen Mason, and Gabrielle Stravelli.
Joan Ellison opens the show with “When You’re Smiling.” Looking elegant in a sequined gown with 50s style hair and makeup, Ellison has heads bopping along to this rousing opening number which has the crowd cheering and whistling by the end.
Smiling as she sings in her black gown with black opera gloves, Debbie Gravitte performs an uptempo medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.”
Moving in sync to the swinging beat and shimmery brass, Gravitte sings her heart out for the enthusiastic audience.
Karen Mason performs a slow sultry interpretation of the ballad, “Do It Again.”
Her performance is lush and luscious as she pleads “Please, do it again,” the lyrical strings and reedy woodwinds playing long notes in contrast to the walking bass line and brushes of the drummer.
Making this song her own, the audience calls out “Brava!” at the end.
Dancing as she sings on the upbeat cha-cha, “You Go to My Head,” Gravitte entertains with an enticing and intoxicating arrangement which features sparkling percussion and blaring brass.
Ellison follows up with “Alone Together,” the orchestra sounding melancholy on this ballad which features Ellison holding long notes with her pure tone. The timpani rolls as the arrangement comes to a dramatic ending, leaving audience members cheering and whistling at the end.
Mason sings with grace and ease while performing an upbeat and personable rendition of “Who Cares (So Long as You Care for Me).” As she vocalizes, she invites the audience to hang on her every word while being perfectly supported by the swinging orchestra.
The Jersey Shore’s own Gabrielle Stravelli vocalizes with skill and style on “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Making her performance look effortless, she handles the quick tempo of the engaging arrangement which features beating drums and New Orleans style brass that makes audience members want to begin to tap dance.
Joking, “Do we all seem like the same person now?” Gravitte retakes the stage to perform “How Long Has This Been Going On” accompanied solely by piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Moving to the center of the stage, she sings with emotion as her gloved hand paints the air above her head.
Ellison follows up by counting off the next number, “Just You, Just Me,” before the orchestra jumps right in on this happy uptempo piece which features syncopated brass licks and a swinging saxophone solo.
A highlight of the evening is Lorna Luft’s interpretation of “The Man That Got Away.”
Explaining, “Harold Arlen was Mom’s favorite composer,” Luft reveals, “She was an avid golfer who, one day, invited Harold to play golf.”
“At the time,” continues Luft, “Howard was working with Ira Gershwin on the music to A Star Is Born. Now, Howard was not known for being able to keep secrets, so Ira explicitly told him not to sing any of the songs for Judy. When they got to the golf course, Harold was humming the first few notes of ‘The Man That Got Away’ and Judy dragged him to the piano at the clubhouse and made him play the song for her!”
Here, Luft knocks the audience’s socks off with her performance of her mom’s famous torch song as she sings with passion, “The night is bitter/The stars have lost their glitter/The winds grow colder/Suddenly you’re older/And all because of the man that got away,” as she’s accompanied by a tight string bass in addition to the sound of a jazz saxophone.
The audience responds with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Act I concludes with Gravitte’s rendition of “San Francisco,” her dynamic personality shining through and connecting with the audience via her talent, smile, and charm on this two-step which features bold and brassy accompaniment.
During a brief intermission we chat with several audience members who share their thoughts about tonight’s Judy Garland tribute concert thus far.
Says Megan from Marlboro, “I’m really enjoying it. When I was a little kid, my cousin introduced me to the Judy at Carnegie Hall album. It’s very exciting to hear it played live. I love the way each performer brings her own personality to the songs, and, wow, ‘The Man Who Got Away’ is one great song.”
Christian from Asbury Park contends, “This is one historic night! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with the recreation of the greatest night in music — Judy Garland is an icon who is loved by everyone.”
Tom from Asbury Park remarks, “This show is amazing. I’m here with my mom and as she was reading the program before the show, she said to me, ‘That’s the exact night I met your father.’ They were both fans of Judy Garland.”
Recalls Avi from Long Branch, “I saw Judy Garland perform about six times,” before confessing, “but I’m also a big fan of Judy’s daughter, Liza Minelli. I took my mom to see Liza’s nightclub act at the Waldorf Astoria where I was invited to bring mom back to Liza’s dressing suite and we both met Judy Garland. My mom talked about that night until the day she died.”
Lastly, we chat with John from Plainfield who tells us he was present for the original Judy at Carnegie Hall concert.
Explains John, “At the time, I worked for a sheet music company, and they had a whole row of seats purchased for the Carnegie Hall concert, so I went.” Declaring, “I was floored!” John recalls, “Everything that night was so right on, and Judy had so much fun with the audience,” before adding, “After that, I saw her at least 20 more times — everywhere from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles — and I even met her several times over the years.”
Act II opens with Debbie Gravitte’s lively rendition of “That’s Entertainment” and is followed with a slow and heartfelt performance of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” by Karen Mason, which features the plucking of a harp, a fluttering flute, and a muted trumpet.
After cheers and whistles, Mason jokes, “Let’s do another one. I put on this fancy dress!”
Here, she performs an upbeat arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” her rousing vocal supported by exciting percussion playing which underlies the big sound of the orchestra on this Garland blockbuster.
Then, Gabrielle Stravelli performs a trio of songs accompanied solely by pianist Don Rebic.
As if part of a recital, Stravelli’s voice fills the theater on her intimate rendition of the ballad, “You’re Nearer.”
After announcing “This next arrangement is different from the original album — it’s more upbeat and jazzy” — she performs “A Foggy Day.”
Her voice strong and resonant, Gravelli’s performance elicits whistles and cheers, at which point she jokes, “If you liked the changes to that one, they were my idea — if you didn’t, it was Maestro Berkowitz’s idea!”
Stravelli concludes her mini-set with the ballad, “If Love Were All.” Crooning at times and singing with power at others, she moves the audience with her emotional performance on this lovely song which has everyone responding with cheers, whistles, and applause.
Luft has fun as she sings with feeling on “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” Dancing on the instrumental interlude, trumpets shake behind a honking tenor saxophone solo. The crowd loves Lorna and stands for her energetic and entertaining performance.
Ellison retakes the stage for a sultry rendition of “Stormy Weather.” Weeping strings, tinkling piano, solo trumpet, and a soli saxophone section are featured on the accompaniment to Ellison’ smooth vocal interpretation. As the song builds with melancholy, Ellison and the orchestra inspire great applause at the end.
Mason and Gravitte join Ellison on stage for a medley of three Garland classics. On “You Made Me Love You,” Mason sings sweetly to a string section counterpoint, and on “For Me and My Gal,” Ellison happily sings to the audience as she dances across the stage. The medley concludes with a percussive rendition of “The Trolley Song” where Gravitte brings joy to the melody before the entire trio takes a well-deserved bow.
Luft retakes the stage to announce, “This was Al Jolson’s song until my mom sang it — then it became her song.” Here, she wows the crowd with her dynamic interpretation of “Rock A Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” At the concluson, as the audience whistles and cheers with appreciation, Luft lifts her head to the heavens and smiles.
Another highlight of tonight’s show is Joan Ellison’s wondrous performance of “Over the Rainbow.” Her voice strong and clear, the arrangement ebbing and flowing, Ellison gives a master class in interpretation as she sings, “Where troubles melt like lemon drops/Way above the chimney tops.”
Painting a picture with her talent and emotion, Ellison’s irresistible performance inspires an electric reaction from the crowd.
Gravitte follows up with an energetic and entertaining rendition of “Swanee,” where she invites the audience to sing along. Then, Mason performs a sultry version of “After You’ve Gone.”
Ending the show on a high note, Ellison, Mason, Gravitte, and Stravelli perform “Chicago,” after which Lorna Luft joins the quartet for bows to a well-deserved standing ovation.
As audience members make their way out of the Paramount Theatre, we chat with several who share their opinions of tonight’s Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert.
Comments Stan from Ocean Grove, “This show was wonderful! I loved the different singers — they were all extremely strong. I brought my 91-year-old mother and she loved it,” before noting, “She never got to see Judy Garland, but this was the next best thing.”
Remarks Matt from Asbury Park, “It was incredible; I’m speechless,” revealing, “And seeing Lorna Left was great. Now I’m an ardent fan.”
Elynn from Ocean Twp. contends, “I loved tonight’s show — it was magnificent thanks to the energy and quality of the orchestra, the talent of the vocalists, and the support of the audience, which was so responsive,” adding, “The Paramount Theater here in Asbury Park is so beautiful! Tonight, we not only had the gift of the music, but of the seashore, as well. What could be better than that?”
Marty from Asbury Park agrees adding “I feel very lucky to be here. It exceeded my every expectation. The musicians were terrific — you just can’t beat a live orchestra — plus the Paramount is such a beautiful theater. It made for a pretty incredible night.”
Lynne from Farmingdale exclaims, “I loved this show! Judy Garland is my all-time favorite performer.” Recalling, “I saw Judy Garland at the Palace Theater when I was five years old, “ Lynne notes, “I liked Joan Ellison — I cried during ‘Over the Rainbow’ — and I liked Debbie Gravitte too; I’ve seen her before and she’s so very talented.”
Lastly, we chat with Harriet from New Brunswick who exclaims, “I’m a Judy Garland fan from forever — even my kids love Judy!”
Recalling, “In 1962, I received the Judy at Carnegie Hall LP as a birthday present. I listened to that record over and over. As a result, I knew every note of every song tonight, and this was an accurate performance — the orchestrations were right on,” Harriet continues, “so when Gabrielle Stravelli talked about changing ‘A Foggy Day,’ I knew every change that was made!”
Continuing, “Seeing Lorna Luft and getting a chance to hear the original arrangements played by a live orchestra made this a red letter night for me,” Harriet concludes by stating, “It was beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
In addition to chatting with audience members, we also get a chance to converse with tonight’s on-stage artists who share their perspectives on performing this evening’s 50th anniversary tribute to Judy Garland.
Comments Joan Ellison, “It was overwhelming! Like for so many other people, the song, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ is what made me want to be a singer,” acknowledging, “I’ve been a historian of Judy Garland’s music for the last couple of years, and to hear so much of it all at once tonight was simply amazing.”
Adding, “All of these ladies are sensational performers, and to perform with Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, just blows my mind,” Ellison concludes by admitting, “I’m going to be processing it for awhile.”
Karen Mason remarks, “It was a privilege — not only to sing tonight, but to get to sing to these orchestrations. They fill my heart — the brilliance of these orchestrations just takes my breath away!”
Adding, “To hear the live musicians performing the music of Judy Garland — what can I say? She was the gold standard we all listened to,” Mason notes, “I grew up studying the great interpreters of song like Judy Garland, and it was great to be on the stage with her daughter — the amazing Lorna Luft — tonight.”
Debbie Gravitte exclaims,“Tonight was just great! The audience was primed for this show, and they had visceral reaction to the music. This is the kind of event that when performers first start out in show business, they all want to do. And it’s kind of dreamy, too, because no one had to sing the whole concert all by herself — we had an incredible mix of women doing that together tonight.”
Continuing, “I loved the sound of the live orchestra — in fact, when the orchestra was rehearsing earlier today, we were all recording them with our cell phones,” Gravitte discloses, “It was amazing to sing with them, and when we weren’t singing, we were all listening to and enjoying one another’s performances.”
Gabrielle Stravelli declares, “It was a thrill to be a part of this event and to watch all of these incredible women who were so nice to work with! We could all feel how special this night was — we had the best songs, the best arrangements, the best orchestra, and a great crowd!”
Lastly, we chat with Lorna Luft who sums up the entire evening with one simple statement:
“I had a wonderful time!”
To learn more about upcoming shows at Axelrod Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ — including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which runs from July 11 to July 28, and Remember Jones presents Tommy on Sept. 7 and 8 — please go to axelrodartscenter.com. For information on future performances at The Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ — notably Jon Anderson of Yes on August 2 and Arlo Guthrie on Sept. 28 — please click on asburyparkhall.com/paramount-theatre.Photos by Love Imagery
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