By Mary Ann Bourbeau
RED BANK – Lorna Luft has been entertaining audiences for decades, but her upcoming show at the Two River Theater will be a very special night for her.
The Aug. 24 show will be Luft’s first time performing since undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“I am so looking forward to this,” she said. “Getting back to work is the best medicine I could be getting, not only singing but saying thank you to my fans. This is my first show since, as I call it, the ride with cancer, a ride that is slowly but surely coming to an end. I’m going on a brand-new ride, one that will definitely be a lot more fun.”
Luft said breast cancer does not run in her family, a family that includes her late mother, Judy Garland, her father, producer Sid Luft, and her sister, Liza Minnelli.
Despite the fact that it’s not hereditary, she doesn’t waste time wondering why she was stricken with the disease.
“I never smoked. I eat really well and I take care of myself,” she said. “If I kept asking ‘why me,’ I’d drive myself nuts.”
Luft said that upon hearing the doctor say she had cancer, it felt like Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson all hit her in the face.
“It was paralyzing,” she said. “I felt like I was dropped in the ocean and didn’t know which way to swim. Fortunately, my best friend took me to a team of doctors who took care of me. They’ve become part of my family.”
Her family also includes her husband, musician Colin R. Freeman; son, Jesse, 29, and daughter, Vanessa, 22. They were there for her during the ordeal, as was Minnelli.
“My sister really stepped up as my sister and my best friend,” Luft said. “She was amazing.”
Luft underwent surgery and had her final round of chemotherapy just six weeks ago, an experience that wasn’t fun by any means, but not nearly as bad as she had imagined.
“It wasn’t a walk in the park, but compared to my vision of what chemotherapy was 30 years ago, it’s remarkable how far we have come,” she said. “Chemo needs a press agent.”
As often happens with chemotherapy, Luft lost her hair, but she never lost her positive attitude and sense of humor.
“I look a little like Anne Hathaway in Les Mis,” she said. “But I had a fantastic wig made that looks exactly like my hair, and I can rock those hats and scarves.”
Luft’s hair may be gone, but her energy has returned. “What’s giving me energy is knowing I’m going back to work,” she said.
Work for Luft is a career that has been long and varied. She has performed on stage, acted in television and movies, is a best-selling author, recording artist and Emmy-nominated producer. She made her television debut at age 11, singing on her mother’s television series, The Judy Garland Show. At 16, she shared the bill with Garland on Broadway in a month-long concert engagement at New York’s Palace Theater. Garland died soon after, and Luft misses her to this day.
“They say it gets better over time, but I say it just gets different,” she said. “Other people who lose a parent are reminded of them when they choose to take out old pictures. I’m reminded every day because of the media. It’s something I’ve dealt with for a long time.”
At age 19, Luft starred on Broadway in Neil Simon’s hit musical Promises, Promises, and from there her career took off. She has performed for the royal family at London’s Royal Albert Hall. On television, she was a series regular on the CBS drama Trapper John M.D.
In 1998, Luft released her memoir, Me and My Shadows, which became a New York Times best-seller and later an Emmy-winning ABC miniseries.
Luft said her show at the Two River Theater will be a thank you to the composers and lyricists she has had the chance to work with during her career, people that include Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Dorothy Fields. And she will most certainly sing some of the songs that Judy Garland made famous.
“I was born into this career,” she said. “Some people are born into families of doctors and lawyers. When you’re from a show business family, that’s all you know.”
What Luft knows is that she can’t wait to get back in front of an audience again and start the next chapter of her life, one she will never take for granted.
“Cancer is not going to define me, but it’s a part of my life that’s not going away,” she said. “Come October, honey, I will wear that pink ribbon proud.”
MusicWorks Presents Lorna Loft will be held 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Two River Theater, 2 Bridge Ave., Red Bank. For tickets contact the Two River Theater Box Office at 732-345-1400 or visit www.trtc.org. VIP seating is $105 per ticket and includes a post-show meet and greet with Lorna Luft. Other seats are available at $75, $65 and $45. Each ticket is subject to a $3 fee.