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When you think of self-destructive entertainers who died before their time, which names come to mind? Jim Morrison? Jimi Hendrix? Kurt Cobain? Amy Winehouse? We don't really think of Judy Garland in this capacity — at least I never did — because she lived 20 years longer than these fatalistic 20-somethings, burning out while she was fading away.
But her passing was just as depressing: dead at 47 in a rented house in Chelsea, London, after an inevitable overdose of prescription drugs, awash in debt she could never pay, the media following her like hellhounds. She's a reminder that when your artistic and professional career peaks when you're 17, there's nowhere to go but down.
Peter Quilter's recent Broadway hit End of the Rainbow explores Garland's unceremonious final days during a six-week engagement at London's Talk of the Town nightclub, and it's a welcome reprieve from the surface-skimming musical revues of the singer's life and work. Running at Actors' Playhouse in one of its first regional productions in the United States, End of the Rainbow is a musical, sort of. With only two exceptions, both of which are missteps, the songs originate organically in the moment, performed in the context of Garland's mercurial cabaret act.
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Mostly, though, End of the Rainbow is a straightforward drama tinged with acrid comedy. Three characters love, argue, and piss down one another's legs in an increasingly trashed hotel room that's never big enough for Garland's ego.
These three characters are Garland (Kathy St. George); her fifth husband, club owner Mickey Deans (Michael Laurino); and Anthony (Colin McPhillamy), her longtime pianist. Though her years of showbiz primacy have passed, Garland still saunters through the room in perpetual diva mode, a pampered superstar around whom the world, or at least London, must orbit. She immediately complains about the size of their suite — "This is a room for a hobbit!" — which is amusing considering Garland's vertically challenged height of four feet 11 inches.
But that's just the beginning. End of the Rainbow becomes a constant battle between Judy and herself, Judy and Mickey, Judy and Anthony, and Anthony and Mickey, with most of the conflicts surrounding the singer's reliance on alcohol and prescription meds — so she can perform, enjoy life, and get out of bed in the morning. She's a true junkie, so there's no question of whether she'll get her pills; it's a matter of who will enable her first and why.
Quilter's script deserves great credit for demystifying Garland's iconic status and turning her into a profane, desperate, ugly pill fiend who earns our pity, especially when moments of truth pierce her barbiturate haze. "They go when I'm not looking," she mutters of her first four husbands, just as her fifth is packing his suitcase in the other room. This play is not pretty, nor should it be.
David Arisco's direction successfully brings out the best and worst in all three central characters — not one is demonized, even when their decisions are misguided and self-serving. Moreover, he creates at atmosphere of immersive realism, effectively rendering Quilter's script invisible; in the hands of Arisco and his remarkable cast, the dialogue never sounds written. Every outburst or gesture has the truthful resonance of spontaneity.
As Mickey, Laurino — in addition to looking the part of a '60s nightclub owner, with his sideburns and shag of tousled hair — delivers an intuitive performance, seemingly free of studied calculation. The love/lust that must have been present at some point between Garland and him rarely manifests itself on the playhouse stage, but that absence seems appropriate for the milieu: He's less a lover than an AA sponsor or a concerned parent, trying to keep his wayward adolescent away from drugs and booze during difficult periods.
McPhillamy, meanwhile, is an absolute charm, portraying the play's most kind-hearted, likable character as a veritable godsend. He's also unself-consciously funny and, when he needs to be, tragically distraught. Witness his key moment in Act II, a study in downplayed subtlety. If your heart doesn't break, you probably don't have one.
Saving the most tornadic for last, Kathy St. George achieves the feat of disappearing utterly into her cultural icon. Her looks, her age, her voice, even her height mirror Garland's circa 1968. It's no surprise she won wide acclaim for her title role in a similar show, And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland, a few years ago.
In the periodic cabaret shows that punctuate End of the Rainbow — cued by surprising and lovely scenic transitions from set designer Tim Bennett, complete with a five-piece live band — St. George embodies the singer's erratic range, from solid and sober renditions of hits such as "Smile" and "The Trolley Song" to a ghastly performance that quickly skids off the rails (assuming there were rails to begin with) and her climactic "Get Happy," a manic performance fueled by Ritalin.
St. George's work is equally authentic back in the hotel room. When Judy is carried into the suite after a drug-fueled night on the town, St. George flawlessly inhabits the headspace of a person under the influence of God knows what. At other times, she sounds like James Cagney, spitting out the nasty epithets and harsh demands of a tin-pot dictator at the end of her reign.