Correction: The byline and photo credits published in The Local for this story were incorrectly attributed. The story and photos are all by Mike Balsom.
Though it officially began on June 20, Music Niagara Festival’s 2021 At Home Series shifts into high gear July 22 with From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood.
Rebecca Perry’s one-woman show sees her take on the personae of Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball, four trailblazers who broke the mold by pushing back against the studio system that limited what women could accomplish on the silver screen.
It’s a show Perry has performed throughout Canada, England and Scotland, including three weeks at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and a full run as part of the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s season in February 2020.
From Judy to Bette began as a 30-minute play when it debuted at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival in 2016. Perry’s success there convinced her to expand it into a full 75-minute production, with husband David Kingsmill providing musical accompaniment on piano as well as an interlude during a 15 minute intermission.
Of the four performers she takes on, Perry says she admires them for more than their talents.
“Lucille Ball was the first woman to own her own studio,” exclaims Perry. “Not only were they all talented women, but they had good business heads. It’s something that I wanted to share, because as time rolls on, not everybody my age is familiar with these women. They have so much to offer. I wanted to share that magic.”
The 32-year old Brampton native’s fascination with and love for the women of a bygone era was fostered by her grandmother, who would bring over her MGM movie musicals and Lucille Ball videos while babysitting.
A graduate of the theatre school at George Brown College, Perry previously played over 30 different characters in her first full one-woman show, Confessions of a Red-Headed Coffee Shop Girl. Besides narrating From Judy to Bette as the four Hollywood stars, Perry also takes on the voices of about a dozen others, including studio executives and rival actresses.
This month’s online performance was recorded last week in the library at the Pillar and Post. The Local was fortunate to watch as the flame-haired actress, wearing a glamorous green dress, imitated the singing voice of Bette Davis.
Yes, in 1976, after decades of smoking, the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane actress rasped through a set of 11 songs on the album Miss Bette Davis. Perry runs through a medley of the numbers, many of them well-known standards, culminating in a hilarious coughing fit.
Later, she assumes the roles of RKO and Warner Bros. executives fighting over the contract of the Academy Award winner. Davis made waves in the late 1930s when she fought a months-long legal challenge to be released from her studio contract.
The show then fast forwards to the 1940 Academy Awards, when Davis lost the Best Actress Oscar to Vivian Leigh for Gone With the Wind. Perry then slides seamlessly into the role of Judy Garland, who was presented at that same ceremony with a special Juvenile Award for her performance in The Wizard of Oz.
Perry is a master of moving from character to character, even when the contrast between the acid wit of Davis and the zany antics of Ball might seem to make that a difficult task.
“I’ve taken great pains to craft this show in a way where the transitions feel fluid and not jarring to the audience,” she laughs. “I’m definitely chronicling four very, very different women.”
Storytelling, gossip column tidbits, comedy routines and iconic songs all feature into Perry’s repertoire. Her powerful voice, costumes and stage presence take the viewer back in time, while Kinsgmill’s piano accompaniment perfectly frames her singing.
Music Niagara Festival’s 2021 At Home Concert Series continues on July 29 with the Toronto All-Star Big Band recorded at Chateau des Charmes. The ever-popular Big Band returns following their well-received holiday program last December.
August will see four concerts, including an Aug. 5 look at a 1964 incident when American avant-garde composer John Cage spent 15 hours lost overnight in the remote Saskatchewan woods. The following Thursday Luke McMaster offers his Icons of Soul show, a collection of brand-new tunes, created in collaboration with original hit makers, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Lamont Dozier of Motown fame.
The new gardens at the Pillar and Post create the setting for two August shows. Garden of Seasons offers very different sounds of nature by Italian, Russian, and Argentinian composers, while Paris Connection features music by French impressionists, as well as the Jazz Suite by Claude Bolling. The latter will be performed by harpist Erica Goodman, violinist and Music Niagara founder Atis Bankas, pianist Michael Berkovsky, and a flute jazz trio.
On Sept. 2, Bankas and Victoria Kogan take on Beethoven’s three violin sonatas, Op.30, dedicated to the Russian Emperor Alexander I. The story sheds some light into Beethoven’s attraction to the Russian Imperial family. Shaw actor Guy Bannerman returns to Music Niagara on Sept. 9 as he looks at the importance of music in the life and plays of George Bernard Shaw, who worked as a music critic for a number of London newspapers.
The season wraps up with a look at Mozart’s Legacy on Sept. 16, and finally Let’s Tango, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the music of the king of modern tango Astor Piazzolla. Performers for that show include founders of Payadora Tango Ensemble violinists Rebekah Volksteen and Drew Jurecka, Atis Bankas on violin and Erica Goodman on harp. Quartetto Gelato and tango dancers will also be part of the program.
With the recent announcement that Ontario is moving into Stage 3 of its reopening plan, restrictions on live music events have been loosened. That’s great news to Music Niagara General Manager Karen Lade.
“Music Niagara will continue to bring great music to our audience through our At Home series,” Lade promises. “Now with the reopening, we will be selling tickets to the filming of select performances. Tickets to the filming of Luke McMaster’s Icons of Soul and Tom Allen’s performance Being Lost will go on sale online only Thursday, July 15 at noon via www.musicniagara.org.”
From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood debuts at 4 p.m. on July 22 on Music Niagara’s website and YouTube channel.