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.
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.
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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.
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