In the program, 59E59 Theaters artistic director Val Day describes this show as “infectiously joyous.” I couldn’t think of a better phrase – except perhaps supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, of course.
Julie Madly Deeply is many things: a cabaret, a history, and a celebration. Sarah Louise Young employs some of Julie Andrews’ most famous songs to recount the iconic performer’s life and career, accompanied by a wonderful Michael Roulston on piano throughout. The story is helped along with audience interaction and the appearance (that is, spot-on impressions by Ms. Young) of some celebrity players in the narrative, including Andrews herself, Audrey Hepburn, and one bold Liza Minnelli that just seems to keep popping up when you least expect her.
In case that wasn’t clear: Andrews nor Hepburn nor Minnelli themselves appear in this production. (Roulston clarifies that right at the start, lamenting, “No one here is Julie Andrews. Sadly, I’m not Julie Andrews,” and meeting a chuckle from the audience.) However, Young brings them to vivid and sparkling life through her storytelling and song.
She starts at the very beginning (a very good place to start): with the discovery of Andrews’ powerhouse voice in her childhood, and she flies over her whole life until the present, in which the unfortunate loss of her singing voice has relegated her signature sound to recordings and recreations such as Young’s. Roulston actually introduces her as “the next best thing” to Andrews. It’s a tall order, but Young expertly fills it. She is a charming and worthy carrier of Andrews’ legacy.
Young has crafted her narrative around the songs quite organically – the lyrics hearken to whatever life event Young recounts without feeling forced. The narration is inventive as well. She commentates Andrews’ and Petula Clark’s “race to stardom” as a horse race. Edwina Shrump, Young’s fictional news anchor persona, provides ample laughs in the sensational way she portrays the press’s relationship with Andrews. And the Swiss Alps’s hills come alive not only with the sound of music, but also printed on a ruffled, cartoonish blue dress nearly as large as Andrews’s voice and Young’s personality.
The target audience is definitely Andrews fans – speaking as one myself, we’re more likely to eagerly hum along and overlook the concert’s campy presentation (if I must play critic, that’s my one quibble). However, even those with no knowledge of her work can still learn from and appreciate Julie Madly Deeply. In this show, Young is anyone who’s ever belted out their favorite show tunes in the mirror, or dressed up as their favorite celebrity and impersonated them, perhaps in their youth. That same kind of pure fun and appreciation bursts from Young’s performance.
The show – and the praise of Andrews within it – may be scripted, but it’s clear that Young’s own enthusiasm from the star comes from a genuine place. She repeatedly goes off-script to ask the audience about their experiences seeing Andrews perform in person, which leads to follow-up questions because she becomes fascinated and sincerely interested in hearing more. Young herself even quips that she’d stick around for 10 hours if she could, singing Andrews’ songs and watching videos of Andrews and Carol Burnett with the audience. Frankly, if that’s what it would take to devote more time to Thoroughly Modern Millie music and continue to feel the merriness brought on by theater-wide Sound of Music singalongs, I don’t think I’d mind if she did.