Judy: I’m Still Here- A musical celebration

Brian Butler July 1, 2024

Debbie Wileman is a phenomenon. She gained public recognition with her song-a-day videos on Facebook in lockdown. Spotted by an agent she later hit the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall, not once but twice, and now Scott Stander has produced her on the West End stage. But why ?

Well because Debbie IS Judy. Not a tribute; not an impersonation – she inhabits the body, soul and voice of that great gay icon. She literally is Miss Garland.

Her hand gestures, staccato speaking voice, slurred in later life, even her walk across the stage – it’s all Judy. But every now and then Debbie becomes herself, telling us little anecdotes that help her singing voice rest – but not that much rest as we get 17 belting songs in her 90-minute show.

We get Judy’s melancholy, her damaged, sometimes fragile genius, but above all a powerhouse of a voice throughout her range that blows your socks off.

I can’t review all her offerings, but here’s a taste of what she gave us. Sondheim’s I’m Still Here – the title of the show encapsulates the evening – Judy is still here as Debbie, and also it’s a song not available to Judy in her lifetime. What Debbie cleverly puts together is a show of Judy favourites, but also songs she never got to sing, which Debbie then renders in her style. It’s a brilliant idea – roles we never played.

And I’m Still Here makes you ponder how Judy would have been in Follies as the hard-bitten survivor. Just In Time was soft and luscious to start then a change of tempo and a belting conclusion. I’t’s Today from Mame had frenetic energy and magic timing, and we moved on to The Boy Next Door, with its innocence and disappointed emotional excitement.

From Judy’s last film we get the title song I Could Go On Singing – in her older slightly slurred voice but ending in big big notes, as Debbie sings, lit by 40 red spotlights.

We’re back to Mame with If He Walked Into My Life, with a bluesy feeling as she sings to the boy with the bugle – “ what a shame I never found the boy before I lost him,” goes Jerry Herman’s marvellously melancholic lyric.

Debbie tells us that at Harold Arlen’s birthday party Judy sang a Beatles medley, including Yesterday but never recorded it – well Debbie does it full justice. And then we suddenly get an Amy Winehouse number – Back To Black – as Judy might’ve sung it – two enormous tragic talents using their unhappiness to make triumphant art.

And on the evening goes: A Foggy Day, Beauty And The Beast, The Trolley Song, The Man That Got Away, with more than their fair share of raw emotion and controlled energy. All too soon we’re in finale time with the enigmatic Get Happy, and then as Debbie describes it “a rare song”- not rare at all of course as she ends with a thumping glorious Over The Rainbow.

Steve Orich conducts his own arrangements with a marvellous band – big brassy, bluesy, jazzy – just brilliant backing.

I suspect Mr Stander is going to do great things with Debbie – watch this space and remember I told you so. Oh and look out for my feature interview with Debbie coming over the summer only in Scene magazine.

I’m Still here was at the Ambassadors Theatre, London.

You can check out her Insta here