by Jon L Jensen
Molly Pope brought back her critically acclaimed act, “A Star is Born,” to Feinstein’s/54 Below on Wednesday, September 28. The show not only highlights Pope’s stunning vocal, acting and dancing talents, it lifts its source material, the 1954 classic film, to new heights.
Starring Judy Garland and based on the 1937 film of the same name—it is largely remembered for its musical numbers, almost all of which occur in the first half of the film. The second half languishes its attention, not so much on the emergence of a new star, but instead on her alcoholic love interest, played by James Mason, whose addiction upstages the film’s first musical number and continues to do so to its painful conclusion. The movie’s final line, “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine,” tragically reminds us that a woman’s success is too often subsumed by men. (Keep an eye out for the recently announced remake starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.)
By contrast, Pope’s act, including all the songs from the film under the musical direction of Brian Nash, runs at a dizzying pace. In an hour, she takes the audience through the major emotional turns of the film, gratefully without the tragic romance (and male dominance) of the original.
The evening begins with Pope singing behind the audience almost breathless, as if caught mid-performance. Soon she is flanked by the charming Danny Bevins and Brian Beach. These “dance boys,” however, only underscore that this is one woman’s show. Within the first minutes, Pope socks the audience with the most well known song from the film, “The Man Who Got Away.” We never meet this man, and who cares? Pope dazzles us without him.
Pope’s acting and singing reflect Garland’s frenetic energy and scrappy vulnerability without ever resorting to a cheap impersonation. Her performance reminds us that Garland waged her own tragic battle with addiction. In the intimate setting of Feinstein’s/54 Below, we can see all this star-power, in close-up. Like Garland, Pope always maintains a kind of effortless effort, the illusion that at any moment she might just fall apart. Her old-school Broadway belt and tremulous vibrato always seem at the breaking point, when in reality, this is a performer in constant control.
Wednesday’s performance ended with a new encore, “I’m Off the Downbeat,” a song by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, cut from the original film. Pope sings,
“From now on I’m flying, on wings of song.
Why be earthbound? Fly along.”
The song could not be more appropriate: this is no downbeat night of entertainment; Molly Pope is no earthbound performer. Long, long may she soar and it will be interesting to see where else she turns for future musical inspiration.
Jon L Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.