QPAC and the Queensland Theatre Company presented the QLD Premiere of Peter Quilter’s bio-drama musical play End of the Rainbow last week to a standing ovation.
It’s December 1968 and a broke Judy Garland and her her new manager (and fifth husband-to-be) Mickey Deans (Anthony Standish) check into the luxurious Ritz suite for yet another comeback tour with a 5-week run of cabaret shows at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub.
The play’s clever set design (Bill Haycock) rotates between the private life of Judy behind the closed Ritz suite doors and the Talk of the Town nightclub where we see Judy (Christen O’Leary) in the limelight (however, not as shiny as she used to be). David Walters’ lighting design sparkled in the nightclub scenes and the digital designer’s (Tim Roane), projected window view was a touch of genius and it made me wonder why we don’t see this effect more often.
Anthony Standish as Mickey Deans, plays a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At first, the fiancé seems to be the strong man doing the ‘manager thing’ and keeping Judy clean and sober, but soon the young man (both in age and show-biz experience) learns that no-one can control the erratic, manipulative, addicted Diva. The only way to keep her on stage is to keep her on the pills. He thus becomes yet another opportunistic enabler in her life – a long line which began with her mother.
The relationship is a tumultuous one and the lack of love and respect shown in the play leaves the question unanswered as to why they ended up marrying in March 1969. But then again, the search for genuine love was Judy’s life quest. Unfortunately, she never did find the pot at the end of her rainbow, as she died from an overdose just months later, aged 47.
Playing the polar opposite of Mickey Deans in the good-versus-evil tug of war in Judy’s life was loyal accompanist Anthony (Hayden Spencer), who played at her infamous 1964 Melbourne concert. Much more than an amalgamation of Judy’s gay adoring followers, Anthony is a steadfast friend. Spencer plays this role beautifully; showing calm, grace, and humour in a whirlwind of Judy chaos. There is a touching scene toward the end in which he offers Judy an alternative path and the warmth, care, and concern portrayed is simply beautiful.
However, the real star of this show is Christen O’Leary as Judy Garland. It would be hard enough to play character with a bipolar disorder induced by drug and alcohol addictions; to portray a cocktail of emotions ranging from debilitating, anxiety-infused stage fright, outrageous demands and childish stubbornness, to diva rages, unquenchable attention and love seeking behaviour. Then add the layer of playing someone very specific; a very well known Judy Garland with all her mannerisms is quite an undertaking. On top of that, the actor is required to sing with performances that display both diva perfection and rock bottom train wrecks. Even the legend said of herself, “Being Judy Garland is quite a chore”.
O’Leary’s performance and obvious intensive research into character and vocal stylisation is quite remarkable and award worthy. The standing ovation on opening night was well deserved.
In spite of the tragic story, Director David Bell wanted to also convey Judy’s “crazy sense of humour, her love of life and her indomitable spirit”. There is a fantastic scene in which addicted Judy’s reaction to being reprimanded by both Mickey and Anthony after taking dog medication is to roll on the floor and bark like a dog. The play is also riddled with one-liner quips to keep the downward spiral buoyant enough for the audience to enjoy. In one scene Judy holds a glass of water and remarks, “Whenever I drink water I always feel I’m missing out on something”.
The concept of a show about Judy Garland seems to be an inevitable hit from the outset. Let’s face it, there is an endless fascination with Garland, even for those of us who weren’t alive when she was. And watching a veritable train wreck is also riveting stage material. Not only was she brought to life for those who were never able to see her in person, but we were also treated to a number of Judy’s hit songs from her catalogue, such as ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, ‘The Trolley Song’, a reflective rendition of ‘The Man That Got Away’, and a haunting ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ towards the end.
O’Leary channels Judy with the support of a 6-piece band under the tight Musical Director Andrew McNaughton.
End of The Rainbow is showing at the Playhouse Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre till 24th March.