Theater

The Ghost of Judy Garland

“End of the Rainbow” replays Garland’s last days in a backstage play that’s better musically than dramatically.

By - Jan 13th, 2014 03:50 pm
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Hollis Resnik and Thomas J. Cox in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Hollis Resnik and Thomas J. Cox in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The central justification for “End of the Rainbow” is Chicago actress Hollis Resnik doing far more than wearing the Judy Garland wig and flashing the self-deprecating humor and substance-abuse traumas that became the beloved performer’s patented persona.  She does it all without becoming a pale imitation of the original – or even attempting imitation.

Yes, the song standards and the belting climaxes are the sort that made Garland famous and Resnik suggests the tremolo, touches of the phrasing and quaver of the original, but she is a full-throated singer and emoter in her own right.

To keep her own gifts while matching her physicality to Judy is no small accomplishment. After decades of  others’ desperate attempts to crassly mimic Judy – even in drag shows and TV talent contests —  Resnik commands respect for molding the characterization with her own voice and passion, capturing the thrill of concert dynamics and emotional crescendos built into the tour-de- force songs and medleys that sprinkle the script.

If this were a Resnik concert at the Milwaukee Repertory Quadraccci Powerhouse Stage through February 9, audiences should run to see it. But there is an unsteady play surrounding her, try as she might to occupy it. It is an excuse for exorcising Garland’s ghost – an invention of backstage and onstage events surrounding Judy’s infamous and emotionally erratic final concerts at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968 (a few months before she died of an overdose).

Hollis Resnik and Nicholas Harazin in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Hollis Resnik and Nicholas Harazin in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Playwright Peter Quilter sincerely seeks to convey the contradictions of Garland’s lasting appeal – a pure powerful voice, a vaudevillian’s instincts in performance, a determination to overcome the destructive demands of big-time show business by seeking personal love in all the wrong places, a feverish reliance on popping pills to survive the endless pressure.  He has built centrally into the plot the fascination of the gay community with this “little girl with the giant talent lost” — as true in New York and Hollywood as it was in London.  End of the Rainbow – what a hypnotic title!  What a theater-worthy idea. In stretches and dialog riffs based on Judy’s wicked wit, Quilter pulls it off, until the play tries to do too much in melodramatic contrivance and repeated Freudianisms.

Like Garland in concert, “End of the Rainbow” almost survives on stage craft, this time orchestrated by director Mark Clements, the Rep’s artistic director. But this Rep subscription event is still advertised as a play, and that’s where the production struggles.

Clement is a smart leader who knows well where pace and atmosphere can mask mawkishness.  He is rather obviously pulling out all staging stops to strengthen an uneven dramatic concoction built around Resnik’s voice. He even encourages her to emphasize speedy line readings and comic antics over the human insights that are her strongest acting gifts alongside her show-stopping singing.

Clements is also leaning hard on the Rep’s terrific production team. There’s outstanding scenic design by Dan Conway to switch the Ritz Carlton suite with the concert stage. There’s sound design by John Tanner to disguise the mikes and false piano playing — even into creating the illusion of a full hidden orchestra. Clements also encourages lighting designer Jesse Klug to goose in every conceivable pulsating or glowing effect.

Thomas J. Cox and Hollis Resnik in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Thomas J. Cox and Hollis Resnik in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Quadracci Powerhouse production of End of the Rainbow. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s a technically impressive job that underscores the holes in the dramatic progression. Even an intelligent actor, Thomas J. Cox —  as the gay pianist trying to support, save and control Judy all at the same time — cannot do all the play asks as the story descends into emotional fabrications.

Nor can Nicholas Harazin – as Judy’s final amour Mickey Deans — bring off consistency as a callow attractive youth acting tough and competent but out of his depth in dealing with damaged goods.  A stronger tempestuous balance between Judy and Mickey would have helped the play, as would some carving away of obvious background-filling and less reliance on homosexual jokes as a quick-laugh crutch.

Resnik deserves accolades for her stage persona and for keeping the audience sympathetic to the best of Clements and Quilter’s efforts.  It’s a flawed evening of theater, but there are moments when it takes us inside the comet that was Judy Garland and finds both her Rainbows and the destructive forces that closed in and closed her down.

For show schedules, regular pre-curtain discussions of Judy Garland and talks with the playwright, visit www.Milwaukee Rep.com.

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