tracy dawson is so into judyGarland, you'd think she was a gay guy out of the 60s.When she was 10 or 11 years old, thumbing through albums at the Brampton public library, she discovered Garland's Live At Carnegie Hall album. It changed her life.
"I'd call my mom into my room, she'd sit on the edge of the bed and I'd belt out these numbers," recalls the multi-talented actor, singer and comic, who's unveiling the first full look at her new show, Tracy Dawson Does Judy Garland, at the We're Funny That Way fest of gay and lesbian comedy.
"I looked at pictures of Judy when she was 12. She was chubby; I was chubby. She sang; I could sing. My parents told me that the aother name they were considering giving me when I was born was Frances. (Frances Gumm was Garland's original name.) She died in 1969, and I was born in 73. I thought it entirely possible that I got her soul."
Eventually, Dawson discovered other gay icons like Barbra Streisand ("Early Barbra," she specifies, "-- after a certain period I don't pay attention to her") and Bette Midler.
But the star of The Wizard Of Oz kept elbowing her way into her life. In the past year, for instance, two very different drunken strangers came up to the pug-nosed performer to tell her she looks like "the mother of Liza Minnelli."
"I feel like Judy's following me," says Dawson. "I realized I had to sit down and finally write a show about her."
The work-in-progress is neither an impersonation nor a schmaltzy tribute rip-off like Piaf or Patsy.
"It's a personal show about Judy's influence on my life," explains Dawson. "I talk a bit, sing a bit. I take the audience up and down, from tragedy to putting on a happy face."
Dawson understands that Garland might seem anachronistic to a new generation of proudly out gay guys and lesbians. Apart from Will & Grace's Jack and his one-man show, Just Jack, a campy homage to Garland, she's pretty much disappeared as a queer cultural icon.
"It's good to move on," she agrees. "That has to do with being out and proud instead of closeted and needing a flawed, tragic woman to relate to and through. But at the same time, you've got to recognize her ability as a performer and recognize her passion. That's undeniable."
Dawson comes to her one-person show via her own yellow brick road.
A stand-up and member of sketch comedy troupe Loogie in the mid 90s, she also has a long association with the Brock Simpson/John Mitchell/Lisa Lambert crowd, who've been involved in funny musicals like Kid Canuck and The Drowsy Chaperone.
Dawson's big break came when she was picked up for the Second City mainstage. She stayed for two shows, received great reviews and then was abruptly fired because, she was told, she didn't work well in an ensemble situation.
"There was a lot of politics and negativity there under a certain producer," recalls Dawson, whose brassy, no-BS style registers effectively in person or on TV. "People weren't treated equally. I was initially favoured, and then I wasn't. These days the vibe feels different -- much more positive."
Still, the SC experience helped hone her improv skills, and she made invaluable connections, like then fellow cast member Gavin Crawford, whose TV show she's guested on several times.
Since recently returning from a year in the acting ensemble at the Shaw Festival, Dawson's priorities have shifted.
After working with dedicated thesps like Blair Williams ("Why doesn't the rest of the country know about him?"), she's questioning her earlier ideas about success and fame.
"When I was at Shaw, my agent asked me to put together an audition tape for Mad TV, and I didn't want to," she confesses. "The idea of doing that in the midst of all this great theatre seemed nuts.
"Now I want to do more theatre for others or create projects for myself. You can do all the stupid TV shows and make good money, but I want to do live stuff that bends genres and goes way beyond comedy."
tracy dawson does judy garland written and performed by Tracy Dawson, part of we're funny that way at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander), tonight (Thursday, May 2), 9:30 pm. $18-$20. 416-975-8555.