It is 1968, and Judy Garland, allegedly clean and sober, wants to make a comeback in London.
"You gotta see the whole picture,” Judy Garland tells fiancé Mickey Deans in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. “Everything just comes to me at once and crashes from one thing to another. I can’t control it. Why can’t you see that?”
Depending on whose version of the legend you choose, either her mother, Edith, or the management of MGM hooked Judy Garland (and Mickey Rooney) on drugs: uppers to keep her awake during filming, downers for sleep. Because Louis B. Mayer kept calling her “that fat kid,” she took Seconal to lose weight.
By 18 she was seeing a psychiatrist. “No wonder I was strange,” she told an interviewer years later. “Imagine whipping out of bed, dashing over to the doctor’s office...telling my troubles to an old man who...answered with an accent I couldn’t understand, and then dashing to Metro to make movie love to Mickey Rooney.”
End of the Rainbow takes place around Christmas, 1968. Garland, 46, allegedly clean and sobered up, wants to make a comeback at London’s Talk of the Town Club. She needs to emotionally and financially: she’s four million dollars in debt, which explains why she refuses to pay the tab at the Ritz — or is it because, as she complains, the suite’s smaller than she remembers?
She’s been mostly a wreck since her 1964 “bloodbath” concert at Melbourne where, drunk, she came on stage too soon, fiddled with the conductor, sang beautifully, but had to battle outraged hecklers. She huffed off stage shortly before intermission, never to return. Many Aussies were so upset, her entourage had to smuggle her onto the plane.
But now she’s found Mickey Deans, jazz pianist and former manager of Arthur, the posh discotheque were Ari Onassis and Jackie O. hung out. In Deans, to become husband #5 in March, 1969, Garland feels she’s been “reborn” by her first true love. Deans will manage her career, on and off stage. So far it’s worked. She’s off booze and Seconal — aka “dolls,” as in the Jacqueline Susann best-seller, Valley of the Dolls (the character Neely O’Hara may have been based on Garland). But she hasn’t performed. Can she make a comeback without medicinal enhancement?
Tennessee Williams feared that “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” Garland may have felt the same.
Along with Deans guiding her career, Garland also has Anthony, loyal pianist and gay confidant, nearby. Each is a caregiver, sort of, and an enabler on the flip-side. Deans wants to put Garland back on stage, but for her sake or his? Anthony wants to steal her from the public eye and the unimaginable pressure she self-generates. He also wants to separate her from Deans, whom Anthony swears is Satan’s older, meaner brother.
Quilter’s script is pure tabloid melodrama. Like good and evil angels, Deans and Anthony wrestle for Garland’s soul — to perform or not to perform — that is, when they aren’t filling in expository facts about the legend or, in Deans’s case, given near total blame for her death by “accidental, incautious overdose,” June 22, 1969.
In an interview, Quilter said that, when he wrote the play, he didn’t want to know too much about his subject. He was surprised that just getting her to go on stage was such a nightly battle; he thought he made that up.
It’s clear where Rainbow, with lulls and near full-stops, is going. What makes Intrepid Theatre’s production worth seeing is Eileen Bowman’s special performance as Garland.
She’s a vulnerable catastrophe. She wants desperately to change and, more desperately, to cope with the next horrific moment by any available means. She’s often unaware where she is, what she’s saying, or where the previous moment went. Bowman gets much of Garland’s humor (though she could lay into the jokes a bit more, as when Judy says, “Every time I drink a glass of water I think I’m missing something”), many of her edges, and her mercurial slam-dance with reality.
Don’t try this at home: singing like Judy Garland’s like trying to dance like Michael Jackson (whose death at 50 due to an overdose while planning a London comeback parallels Garland’s in some ways). Bowman sure comes close. She’s got the jittery elasticity of the later Garland, and the anguish, even in chipper numbers, and how she could carve a new path through a song she’s sung hundreds of times and find genius on the way.
Another feat: I though Bowman was a soprano. Most of the songs are in Garland’s alto-ish register. And now, apparently, Bowman’s too.
Bowman has strong support from Cris O’Bryon as Anthony. Along with playing the baby grand piano with skill, O’Bryon makes the most of a sketchily drawn character. Jeffrey Jones’s Mickey Deans does even more. As written, Deans is a homophobic cipher/greedy leech: the Dark Side of the Force’s far side. Jones plays against the script. This Deans really loves Garland believably. Even the vile gesture the story hinges on may have been done for her sake, not his.
Michael McKeon’s set, a suite at the Ritz, provides a tasteful surround for the chaos within. One suspects it’s close to the actual size of the original, but even the entire hotel would have seemed far too small for the great Judy Garland.
Intrepid Theatre Company, Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Christy Yael-Cox; cast: Eileen Bowman, Jeffrey Jones, Cris O’Bryon, Marco Rios; scenic design, Michael McKeon; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Curtis Mueller; sound, Kevin Anthenill; movement, Javier Velasco; wigs, Peter Herman
Playing through November 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. intrepidtheatre.org