For much of her too-short life, the great Judy Garland walked a precarious tightrope between glory and doom.
At one end was Garland the legend, the star of The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born, the performer whose extraordinary skill at conveying the emotions in a song helped make her an icon. At the other end was the damaged Garland, an insecure woman who drank too much and depended on pills — uppers to sing, downers to sleep — to make it through life.
In End of the Rainbow, a newly opened play-with-music at Actors’ Playhouse, playwright Peter Quilter serves up both Garlands, painting an unsettling portrait of a star in steep decline. Tracie Bennett won acclaim for playing Garland in End of the Rainbow in London in 2010-2011, then starred in the show on Broadway in 2012 and Los Angeles last year.
Actors’ artistic director David Arisco has given South Florida a fresh production of the play, though the look of it is highly influenced by the one that played Broadway. That’s not a knock on set designer Tim Bennett, lighting designer Luke Klingberg or costume designer Ellis Tillman, whose work captures Garland’s late-’60s style; it’s just an observation.
Boston-based Kathy St. George, an actor-singer as diminutive as Garland was, is the performer charged with bringing the troubled star back to life. Michael Laurino plays Mickey Deans, the manager-fiance who would become Garland’s fifth and final husband. Double Carbonell Award nominee Colin McPhillamy portrays Anthony, the Scottish accompanist who represents the legions of gay men who idolized Garland, and Terry M. Cain triples as a BBC interviewer, hotel porter and frantic assistant stage manager.
End of the Rainbow is set at the end of 1968 in Garland’s elegant suite at London’s posh Ritz Hotel, with occasional scenes at The Talk of the Town nightclub, where Deans has booked her for five weeks of comeback concerts — her latest attempt at career resucitation. She arrives clean and sober, though annoyed at the size of her suite (too small, she thinks, despite its Steinway piano and posh furniture). But old, lifelong habits die hard, and soon Garland is sneaking or begging for pills, heading for the abyss that will claim her life just six months later.
The woman in End of the Rainbow is train-wreck Garland, foul-mouthed, sexually voracious, unreliable, manipulative, childish, deeply dependent. She is hard to watch — at times, very hard to watch. Channeling Garland’s upper-fueled energy, St. George almost dances around the stage, nearly ricocheting off the furniture. She strikes Garland-style poses and tries to incorporate some facets of the star’s distinctive voice in her speech and strong singing, but truth be told, she doesn’t sound much like Garland.
Backed by a six-piece band, St. George sings a number of Garland’s signature songs, including You Made Me Love You, The Trolley Song and The Man That Got Away. A manic, over-the-top Come Rain or Come Shine, sung after Garland has powered up on Ritalin, is almost excruciatingly painful.
As the dozen-years-younger Deans, Laurino gives as good as he gets when Garland lets the f-bombs fly, and his convincingly played exploitative actions help make Anthony’s case that Deans sees his wife-to-be as little more than a meal ticket.
But McPhillamy’s work, as is so often the case, is adroit and lovely. His Anthony is a gentle, vulnerable, observant soul, spot-on with a quip but never cruel. End of the Rainbow, a sometimes-wrenching and disturbing piece of theater, isn’t the fictional Anthony’s play. But he injects welcome notes of compassion, even tenderness when its troubled star is seen through his bemused gaze.