Cabaret performer Seth Sikes grew up in Paris, Texas, loving Judy Garland and her music. He saw her in films like “Summer Stock” and “The Wizard of Oz” and sang her music on the playground while his friends performed pop songs.
“I was mesmerized by her voice,” the performer said in a recent Skype interview.
Sikes will mesmerize audiences when he performs an evening of Garland songs at the Rrazz Room in New Hope May 20, coinciding with New Hope Celebrates Pride.
To be clear, the show is not an impersonation. Sikes is not a drag queen “doing Judy.” Nor is he, as some folks have suggested, “channeling” the diva. Sikes sings in a suit, and pays loving tribute to the actor/singer who inspired him. He tells stories about his connection to her songs in between his renditions of “Get Happy,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “After You’ve Gone.”
One number Sikes won’t perform is Garland’s signature tune, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He acknowledged, “Everyone expects me to sing it, but I’d never dare touch it. ‘It’s been done,’ as Liza says.”
Sikes came to perform cabaret after singing show tunes in Manhattan piano bars. He originally moved to New York to be an actor, but he soon shifted gears and decided he might be a good director. When a few jobs as an assistant director prompted him to change his mind again, he started frequenting piano bars. He connected with Garland’s music — and the song “The Man That Got Away,” in particular — after experiencing heartbreak. Suddenly, her music meant even more to him.
He recalled, “I sang Garland with so much passion over the years. I sang her better and stronger. I felt Judy coming out of my throat. I was burned out of theater, and I was ready to do something else, so as a farewell to the theater, I was going to do a ‘stunt’ and sing Garland songs and talk about my lifelong obsession with her.
“I never thought I’d do more than one show,” he added. “I had a backer who paid for the band. I hadn’t been on stage in a decade. I was proud of the structure of the show and the orchestrations and how ‘big’ it sounded. Everyone loved it and they asked me back, and I kept selling out. I started getting reviews and an agent.”
Pardon the pun, but “a star was born.”
Sikes’ cabaret performances have since included tributes to Liza Minelli and Bernadette Peters. The Garland show was created because Sikes said he “couldn’t wait to tell the story of her effect on my life as a kid. It’s one that so many gay men relate to. I think it’s successful because, as gay men, we sing our songs and listen to these [divas] and feel like that character.”
However, the performer insisted he doesn’t want to “pigeonhole myself as the boy who does this.”
He explained that the Peters show was the last of his “diva” tributes.
“I’m not going to do Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand. I truly have loved all three of these musical hero singers [Garland, Minelli and Peters] my whole life. I never liked Streisand in the same way. It wouldn’t be true or real or earnest for me to do her. It wouldn’t be a real love letter.”
As for the emotion he generates performing Garland, Sikes observed, “If I phrase things as her, it’s because it’s ingrained in my brain. There’s not an ounce of trying or attempting to channel it. When I sing big, high notes, I feel her coming out, but there’s a resonance that’s reminiscent of her. I’m not scared to go for it because I don’t have a lot to lose doing this. I’m a passionate, soulful singer. I’m not trying to channel her. I did purposely recreate her arrangements for people who knew her Carnegie Hall performance, but I escaped comparison because I’m a guy.”
That said, Sikes deliberately does not change the pronouns of Garland’s songs. He explained, “I’m an openly gay man who loves Judy Garland and these songs. I don’t see a need to hide it. So if I were to sing a song by Sinatra, I wouldn’t change the pronoun to a man. However, I’m attracted to women’s songs.”
Sikes is also proud to say that he does not connect with contemporary music.
“What gets me going are songs like ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ and luckily, I’ve painted myself as someone who can sing standards. I don’t think there are a lot of people my age [early 30s] who want to keep standards alive. I don’t think I’ll sing my own or contemporary songs, but I will move away from theme shows and I’ll sing Rodgers and Hart, or Sondheim.”
“Seth Sikes Sings Judy Garland” takes place 7:30 p.m. May 20 at the Rrazz Room in New Hope, 6426 Lower York Road. For tickets, visit www.therrazzroom.com or call 888-596-1027.