Matthew Reddin
Theater

The Tragedy of Judy Garland

Rep’s End of the Rainbow offers the laughs and tears and songs of Garland’s hyper-dramatic life.

By - Jan 8th, 2014 11:19 am
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Hollis Resnik will embody Judy Garland in the Milwaukee Rep's "End of the Rainbow."

Hollis Resnik will embody Judy Garland in the Milwaukee Rep’s “End of the Rainbow.”

The first time Judy Garland came back to life, she materialized on the stage of a small pub theater.

That’s where, years ago, a prototype version of Peter Quilter’s now-acclaimed play End of the Rainbow, depicting the last days of the esteemed singer and actress, got its initial appraisal, in front of 90 audience members. Lots of new plays die in fringe venues like that, a British equivalent of a Chicago storefront theater or a temporary performance space.

End of the Rainbow didn’t. Instead, Quilter says, it built steam, rolling along a yellow brick road to bigger venues: a Sydney premiere, a Fringe Festival run, the West End, Broadway. And now, Milwaukee – where the Rep is the first regional theater to earn the rights to the show since it closed in New York in 2012, and the first production to feature an American actor, Hollis Resnik, in the leading role.

If the Milwaukee Rep seems like a strange next step for the show, remember who’s at its helm: British artistic director Mark Clements, who Quilter has worked with multiple times in the past, especially during Clements’ time at the Derby Playhouse in England, the first company ever to commission a play from Quilter. “Mark and I knew each other from the very beginning of my career,” Quilter says. “I was in touch with Mark during the original fringe productions and there were a couple of occasions when it looked like he would direct it. … So I’m particularly thrilled that the play has finally gone into his hands.”

Quilter’s play is largely a showcase for its leading actor, who plays Garland during her 1968 comeback concerts at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London, where the drugs- and alcohol-addicted singer alternated between evenings of exquisite triumph and nights of unimagined catastrophe. We see Garland only in her hotel room, accompanied by her fiancé and soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Nicholas Harazin) and her musical director Anthony (Thomas J. Cox), a fictional amalgam character created by Quilter to represent Garland’s concerned family and friends.

Between the three of them (and Jonathan Gillard Daly, playing a radio announcer and multiple other roles), Quilter is able to tell a story of backstage chaos, to suggest how any star required to be the consummate performer can face crippling issues in the shadows outside the spotlight. But Garland’s fame and reputation give this story extra intensity – this is an especially brilliant performer, caught up in extraordinary, dangerous circumstances.

No play about Judy Garland on a concert tour could forego having the character sing, and Resnik sings throughout End of the Rainbow, both as Garland practicing in her hotel room and in sequences that suddenly transition to the fully orchestrated nightclub stage. But this is not a musical, Quilter emphasizes, just a drama which happens to be about a singer: “How she performs each song is a reflection of her state of mind at that time. It is a dramatic play that in telling its story requires the inclusion of what happen to be some of the greatest songs ever written, by one of the greatest voices of all time.”

Quilter tried to avoid writing a simplistic tribute show. He says he’s seen wonderful examples, true, but rarely walked away feeling like he got to know the performer in question better. The goal with End of the Rainbow is to show Garland as she truly was, a mix of outer strength, inner terror and that undeniable voice. “We try to give you an experience of actually spending a couple of hours with the real Judy; knowing her, understanding her, laughing with her, crying with her and marveling at her extraordinary talent.”

End of the Rainbow, at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse, opens Friday, Jan. 10 and runs through February 9. Tickets begin at $20, and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or online. 

MidnightCryPREVIEW: A Midnight Cry, at First Stage

A decade after its debut, First Stage will revive A Midnight Cry, their acclaimed historical drama by James DeVita about a young slave’s journey through Wisconsin to freedom on the Underground Railroad. It’s a subject more serious than anything they’ve staged so far this year, but also one artistic director Jeff Frank told me in an interview last year has the potential to spark important conversations between children and their parents following the show. “Theater’s not a place to teach – I don’t want to do plays that are didactic – but it’s a place to open eyes and to evoke thought and discussion,” he said.

The interesting thing about this particular remount is the way Frank and the First Stage team have worked to recreate the feel of the original and yet expand its scope. For example, they’ve brought back many of the cast and crew members of the original production, including actors Michael Torrey and Todd Denning and music director Sheri Williams Pannell (who will work with the group of live musicians onstage). But they’ve also expanded the amount of young performers in the cast, adding them in to represent youth bearing witness to history – much like the young members of the show’s audience. A Midnight Cry opens Jan. 10 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater and runs through Feb. 9. The show is recommended for ages 9 and up, and tickets start at $14. For a list of showtimes or to order, call (414) 273-7206 or visit First Stage’s online box office. 

PREVIEW: Trailer Park Prophesies, at Splinter Group

Splinter Group’s the newest theater company in town, so whatever they do this year is likely to set the tone for their foreseeable future in Milwaukee. Their last choice (David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo, a 2000 dark comedy about a girl aging abnormally fast), suggested a penchant for the unusual, and their next offering, Trailer Park Prophesies, should confirm it. The play, written by company founder Jim Farrell, centers around Charlie Wendel, a psychic who lives with his mother in a trailer in southern Illinois and makes the mistake of helping the police with an unsolved case, which lifts him to national fame and upends his life. It’s a crazy-sounding story, but one that might just help Splinter Group increase their fame a little bit as well. Trailer Park Prophesies will be staged at the Marian Center for Nonprofits, 3211 S. Lake Dr., from Jan. 10 to 26, with all shows at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance online or $20 at the door.

CLOSING THIS WEEK

Marcus Center: War Horse, Jan. 12

Skylight Music Theatre: El Cimarron, Jan. 12

Underground Collaborative: Who Killed Santa, Jan. 12

ALSO ON STAGE

Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, at the Stackner Cabaret

Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s, opening Jan. 9

Greendale Community Theatre: The Full Monty, opening Jan. 9

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