It’s hard to imagine a premise more fraught with bathos than the last months of Judy Garland’s life. I’m not sure if fascination with the glamorous celebrity train-wreck is peculiar to American culture or not, but I doubt it. Poor Garland was the genuine article, gifted, charismatic, awash in glorious, exhilarating energy. She could deliver raw ballads without a trace of self-consciousness or apology. Movie studios fed her pills while she was only a teenager, to get the most bang for their buck. By the time she reached her 50’s, she was addicted to psychotropics and liquor. Offstage her behavior was impulsive and self-indulgent, like many brilliant artists, her genius probably bought her a lot of tolerance. All of this is to say that director Cheryl Denson and her cast Judy Garland (Janelle Lutz) Anthony (Christopher Curtis) Mickey Deans (Alex Ross) Radio Interviewer, et al (Paul J. Williams) have taken on a project worthy of Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder up a mountain each day, only to watch it roll back down. And they have done so with moxie and panache.
Judy Garland has just arrived at The Ritz Carlton in London, determined to re-establish herself as the goddess of torch singers, appearing at Talk of the Town six nights a week. Her young fiance and manager, Mickey Deans is with her, and gay pianist Anthony is there, to help her rehearse. Deans is there to make sure the show comes off without catastrophe, dressed in (what might be) some of the most crass wardrobe ever seen on a stage. It’s like studied philistinism. The fact that Deans is not swept up in adoration is probably all to the good, it’s obvious that right now Garland needs advocacy more than pity. But it’s also the problem. For all of his toughness, Deans may be out of his depth. Anthony is a stand-in for all of Garland’s devoted gay fans, tender and concerned, professional yet nurturing.
Janelle Lutz, who appeared as Garland last season in Uptown’s The Boy From Oz, truly evokes the legendary chanteuse. She has the pipes to make the musical numbers work, and the gumption to carry off Garland’s penchant for blue humor and manic shenanigans. We see the great star crawling, barking like a dog, gleefully faking suicide to avoid the hotel manager. All of this is informed by a certain degree of irony, to offset the tragic moments of despair. Playwright Peter Quilter flirts with the abyss more than once as we share in Garland’s harrowing odyssey. It’s really difficult to say whether it’s effective for the story to fly off the rails as “End of the Rainbow” swings back and forth between Garland’s onstage and offstage catharsis. Quilter isn’t really degrading Garland because none of it seems implausible and there’s a kind of heroic aspect to watching someone we love drag themselves up from the ashes and dreck. All this being said, End of the Rainbow is raucous, rambunctious, bitterly optimistic theatre, and I wouldn’t have missed it.
Uptown Players presents End of the Rainbow, playing April 1st-17th, 2016. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dalllas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. uptownplayers.org