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Review: Liza & Judy at Hope Mill Theatre is ‘an emotional rollercoaster showcasing the tumultuous lives of Hollywood legends’

Emma Dears' Judy & Liza at the Hope Mill Theatre enchants with powerful performances, an impressive soundtrack, and thoughtful production design, bringing the tumultuous lives of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli to life

Written and created by Emma Dears, Judy & Liza at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester defied its limited stage setup to create an intriguing show that transported audiences to the glamorous yet tumultuous worlds of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.

Emma Dears also stars as Liza, with the concept of the musical inspired by her time on West End when she was often compared to the Golden Globe-winning actress, as well as her fascination with the mother-daughter duo that defined a generation of Hollywood and theatre.

The musical skilfully combined the poignant moments and show-stopping performances of these two legendary powerhouses, creating a heartfelt tribute that is both an entertaining and moving character study and analysis of Judy and Liza’s relationship.

How were the performances?

The strength of Judy & Liza lies in its dazzling performances. Helen Sheals as Judy Garland and Emma Dears as Liza Minnelli both captured the essence of their respective real-life counterparts without simply impersonating the stars.

Helen’s portrayal of Judy had great emotional depth. Helen captured Judy’s charisma, warmth and eloquence during her triumphant moments and showcased raw authenticity and pain when the international star hit her lowest, sensitively touching on the abuse the actress suffered in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Emma, whose close resemblance to Liza inspired the musical, played her character with vibrancy and optimism, in awe of Judy. Yet Emma’s star truly shined in the second act, as Liza’s larger-than-life spirit begins to crumble under the weight of her divorce and the death of her mother.

An impressive soundtrack

I was initially worried about how well the performances would carry on the stage as Hope Mill Theatre is a smaller venue. Delightfully, each number was performed with an impressive vocal prowess that was met with applause from an enthusiastic audience.

Helen quickly captured the room’s attention with ‘Zing Went My Heart’ an intimate melody that Judy sang to pay tribute to her dying father. Helen carried the weight of the emotive lyrics to great effect and then slipped into the joyful ‘The Trolley Song’ from the Academy Award-winning musical Meet Me In St. Louis with ease.

Emma had an equally demanding setlist as Liza but excelled, especially while performing the bouncy ‘Liza With a “Z”’, a number that required fast-paced delivery to clearly articulate the clever lyrics. Emma also embodied the iconic ‘Cabaret’, performing with exuberance and defiance but with rich emotional undertones.

Production, lighting and dialogue

Again, I worried about how well Judy & Liza would capture my attention on a small stage. It was decorated sparingly, with the main focus being a mid-century catwalk with regency bulbs and a display screen to give the essence of Old Hollywood glamour.

However, the lighting helped sell the experience much more. The spotlight illuminated Judy and Liza in their most vulnerable moments and helped frame the characters at the centre of their world. Additionally, the bulbs on the catwalk were playfully utilised to shine brightest when the music hit a crescendo, adding gravitas to the performance.

The dialogue was sharp and witty, offering insights into Judy and Liza’s complex dynamic without becoming overly sentimental. The playful jabs, jokes and moments of sincerity created a realistic character study for Judy and Liza, humorously supported by Emma and Helen’s polished, transatlantic accents which were popular in Old Hollywood.

A deep emotional impact

There have been many musicals that have analysed mother-daughter relationships, from Gypsy to Fun Home, but Judy & Liza has a particular way of resonating emotionally.

The show refused to shy away from the darker aspects of their lives, and further explored the uncanny parallels between Judy and Liza, as they face the pressures of fame.

Yet, Judy Garland is not remembered for her struggles with addiction and abuse by Hollywood and Liza Minnelli is not defined by the loss of her mother.

Although there is pain in both Judy’s and Liza’s lives, the show highlights the strength and enduring legacy of two international sensations who are bonded by love, talent and music.

Judy & Liza is a well-crafted production that offers a compelling and immersive experience despite its minimal set dressing. No wonder the show is in its tenth year as Emma Dears and Helen Sheals have crafted a gem that plays a moving tribute to two of the greatest stars in entertainment history.

Judy & Liza is at the Hope Mill Theatre from 28th May until 2nd June and you can book tickets here

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