Judy Garland's life was as dramatic as any of the roles she played on screen. Best known as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," the big-hearted Midwestern gal catapulted to fame as a teenager in the 1930s, starring in dozens of films, singing on countless records and, in the process, logging four marriages, three divorces, two children, one abortion and a barbiturate addiction that led to an overdose and her premature death at the age of 47.
Putting on a happy face for the public even as her personal life fell to pieces, Garland was an emotionally complicated character -- a big talent who lived an even bigger life. No wonder her legacy has endured, even 34 years after her death.
Such a life makes good fodder for drama, but it takes a lot of talent to fill Dorothy's shoes in a stage production. Not only does the character come with a lot of emotional baggage, it comes with a lot of expectation. Audiences know what she looks like. They know what she sounds like.
Playing the part successfully is not just a matter of acting and looking but sounding the part -- both in voice and in song. It is not so much an impersonation as a transformation into character, and that's been done so flawlessly by Connie Champagne that she won the 2003 Ovation Award for leading actress in a musical, playing Garland in "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. From the moment she steps on stage in her fluff-trimmed holiday gown to her spotlighted exit in sequins, Champagne is pitch perfect.
In the play, Garland is host to a 1959 Christmas variety show with an iconoclastic guest roster. Bing Crosby, Liberace, Ethel Merman, Richard Nixon, Lillian Hellman and Joan Crawford all make appearances, bantering back and forth and delivering clever one-liners penned by playwrights James Webber and David Church.
"Bing, I haven't seen you since, well, radio," Champagne deadpans to fellow actor Sean Smith, who, like the rest of the actors in this comedy-drama, is superb in his role. The cast gives solid performances across the board, exhibiting a wide-ranging flair for parody and impersonation.
Even so, "if people come to see it for celebrity impersonations, they're gonna be disappointed," said Champagne, who physically becomes Garland by wearing brown contact lenses and stuffing her long, streaked locks under a short-haired wig. "They should go to Vegas and see 'Legends,' because that's not what this show is. It's about redemption, where people get an opportunity to look back on their lives and see what that means to them."
In the case of the Garland character, it's understanding her legacy -- that despite the troubles of her personal life, her big-hearted vulnerability had a profound effect on audiences.
"Garland's experience and mine are very, very different," said Champagne, who's lived her life with significantly less tragedy. "What she did in everything, which is why people responded to her, is she's so honest when she sings, and that's what I hope I am as well."
According to writer-producer Church, Champagne has succeeded. "She obviously has a wonderful singing voice, but her honesty as an actress and her heart and humor as Judy Garland is exactly what we were looking for."
It's no fluke Champagne was a shoo-in for the part. "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" is not the first time she's played the legendary singer and actress. In recent years, she played Garland in the off-Broadway production of "Christmas With the Crawfords," a performance the New York Times hailed as "a masterpiece of subtlety and parody." She's also played her in "Imagine ... Judy Garland," a one-woman cabaret show in San Francisco that had Champagne singing songs Garland never sang -- Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," for example, and Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You."
A talented singer and actor, Champagne did not come from a musical family, she said. Her grandfather played football for the Detroit Lions. Her mother was a drama coach. So it was more than a little surprising to her family when, at age 9, she spontaneously joined a Dixieland jazz band in the beer garden of the Placer County Fair and belted out 27 verses of "Hello, Dolly!"
Champagne was born and raised in the Sacramento area "about a thousand years ago," she said. Although she had an early interest in singing and acting, it wasn't until college that she pursued theater, getting a bachelors degree at Mills College in Oakland, then a master's at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where she lives today.
Champagne's appearance in "Judy's Scary Little Christmas," which debuted last holiday season at the Victory, is her first L.A. production in 10 years. She had lived here for a couple years in the late '80s, attempting to break into television, but she returned to the Bay Area after meeting with one too many agents who wanted to "homogenize" her.
A self-described "odd type," she said, "I realized I had to become very versatile."
And how. Champagne has played everything from Goneril in "King Lear" to Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" and Neely O'Hara in "Valley of the Dolls," even if it's the Garland character that's stuck.
"Can I do other characters? Of course," said Champagne, who fears that all the acclaim she has received for playing Garland will pigeonhole her as an impersonator. "Doing this character has kept me working."
'Judy's Scary Little Christmas'
Where: Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood.
When: Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 and 7 p.m.; Monday, 8 p.m.
Info: (323) 960-4410