Judging JUDY, at NJ Rep

Pheonix Vaughn (right) is the Oscar winning comic actress Judy Holliday — and Adam Harrington is anyone from Jimmy Durante to Orson Welles — as JUST IN TIME: THE JUDY HOLLIDAY STORY makes its Garden State debut at New Jersey Repertory Company. (photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)

It was just a few months ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — premiered a little show called Puma; a look at the life, loves and legacy of the late Marlene Dietrich that the theater critic for the Asbury Park Press (ahem, us) hailed as “a brief and shining portal into a bygone world of backlit luster, sparkling repartee and extraordinary personalities who crackled with charisma…at the very least, it’s something to dress up for.”

Here in the season of dressing down for the weather, the NJ Rep team offers us get-a-life fans of golden-age Broadway and Hollywood another platinum-plated star to ooh and aah over — this one a portrait (in dialogue, memory vignettes and song) of a blonde (smart)bombshell who’s nonetheless not so much of a household name these days: the dynamic Judy Holliday.

The performer who took home a Tony (as Best Lead Actress in a Musical) for Bells Are Ringing may not ring too many bells with the millennials these days, but when you consider her most lasting legacy — the peroxide perennial Born Yesterday, and her role in turning the whole dumb-blonde archetype on its bleached head — the salvaging of Judy Holliday’s public profile comes just in time. As in Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story, previewing this week and opening July 9 in Long Branch.

Stage mom Bonnie Black harangues young Judy Holliday (Pheonix Vaughn), as Adam Harrington and Catherine LeFrere look on, and Mark T. Evans plays on.

Although the latest Broadway revival (with Jim Belushi, the guy who plays Wilson on House and a semi-unknown Nina Arianda) didn’t make it past the end of June, the script by Garson Kanin (in which a corrupt tycoon hires a journalist to “smarten up” his ditzy showgirl moll, with unforeseen consequences to his wheelings and dealings on the Washington lobby-go-round) has long had legs in community theater circles, and even got adapted as a vehicle for then-marrieds Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. But it’s Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn — the role that won her a 1950 Best Actress Oscar in her first starring flick —  who single-handedly fuels any continuing interest in Born Yesterday, and who you walk away remembering.

Although she’d do some fun turns in other pictures like It Should Happen to You and The Solid Gold Cadillac‬‏ — and no, that’s not her in Singin’ in the Rain, but Jean Hagen doing her best Judy — Holliday didn’t leave behind a vast body of work, and her last Broadway production, the short-lived Hot Spot, was her flop final project (despite the contributions of Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents) before cancer cut her down at the age of 43 in 1965.

Thus, Just in Time. The script (by Bob Sloan, among other things a prolific writer of cookbooks and detective thrillers) made its well-received debut as part of the 2010 NYC Fringe Festival, and two of the cast members from that production — Adam Harrington and Catherine LaFrere — are making the trip to Long Branch, portraying a parade of real-life figures who include Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Durante, to songwriting specialists (and Holliday pals) Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Also in the company under the supervision of NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas is Bonnie Black as Judy’s suffocating stage mother, Helen Tuvim, along with musical director/ accompanist Mark T. Evans — and cast in the title role is the dazzling Pheonix Vaughn, a frequent favorite of NJ Rep audiences whose past efforts have ranged from the frothy myth-o-musical Cupid and Psyche, to the paranoiac pub-crawl Yankee Tavern — to a sensational stint as a lonely WWII-era homemaker coming to grips with her sexual identity in The Housewives of Mannheim, a play in which she starred in New York, Indianapolis, Santa Barbara, and Long Branch.

Even as magnetic a performer as the rising star Pheonix has her work cut out for her in summoning Holliday’s level of skills, savvy, and genius (literally — the woman who redefined the “dumb blonde” possessed a Mensa-level IQ), and if the stars align as they did with Puma, NJ Rep will once again be offering classic film buffs a degree of magic they’ll never tap into at the mallside megaplex.

Previewing July 7 and 8 at 2 and 8pm ($35), and opening with a catered reception on July 9 ($60), Just in Time continues Thursdays through Sundays until August 14, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here.

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