Dallas — When you Google “Judy,” guess what pops up first? It’s not a judge.
Nearly 50 years after her death at 47, we are still fascinated by Judy Garland’s compelling voice and iconic movie star image, as well as her touching, self-destructive personal life. The stuff of soap opera showbiz made real, Garland’s childhood as a Hollywood star working long days bolstered by amphetamines and propelled by a draconian stage mother, led to an inevitable descent into alcohol and drugs and a lifelong battle with addiction.
Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, zooms in on the final months of Garland’s life when she is attempting still another a comeback. A Broadway hit in 2012, the taut, funny and revealing play gets a superb regional premiere in Uptown Players’ arresting production at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Cheryl Denson directs a stellar cast with a high-powered, pliant performance by Janelle Lutz as the brilliant vocal firebrand who can gear herself up with whatever drugs, booze and sex she can get her hands on to deliver the goods again and again on the stage—but never attain a moment of private peace. Lutz won praise from audiences and critics alike for her portrayal of Garland in Uptown’s production of The Boy from Oz in 2014. She’ll surely win even more fans with this intensely felt performance.
Set in London in 1968, the story follows a nerved-up Judy (petite Lutz, a stunningly exquisite Judy look-alike in Suzi Cranford’s svelte gowns and dresses) moving on Clare Floyd DeVries’ fluid set between a swank Ritz Hotel suite and the famed Talk of the Town nightclub where she’s set for a series of shows.
Traveling with her and her luggage is Mickey Deans (a virile, tightly contained Alex Ross), her handsome young fiancé and manager, and soon-to-be fifth husband—though even Judy loses track of that number. “I thought this was the fourth,” she quips to her gay pianist Anthony, a valiantly loyal Christopher Curtis, delivering his adoration in a convincing Scottish accent.
Dried out through months of rehab and energized by her sexy new guy, Judy is set to knock ‘em dead, get her career back on track and make some money. Now’s her inning, right? Ah, but this lady brings more baggage than her suitcases hold. Judy, in the vibrant embodiment of Lutz, enters bitching—and to whistles and noisy applause on opening night.
The suite is smaller than the one she had before. The concierge, Mickey tells her, insists on cash in advance; everybody knows she’s broke. Judy has to pick up the phone to charm and cajole the manager into delaying payment. Even worse, her tough-love protector won’t allow his shaky property a glass of champagne to celebrate the moment of reuniting with dear Anthony, poised at the piano and ready to rehearse. “No booze, no pills, no nothing while we’re here. I make the rules,” Mickey tells her.
The suite windows open to the pavement far below, and everybody—including the audience—gets edgy when Judy leans into the fresh air and looks down. She vamps her hunky young manager, and begs for something a little more relaxing than the liquid from the tap. “Whenever I drink water, I think I’m missing something,” she says in her perfectly loaded reflection on 30 years of hard drinking and prescription drugs. Wryly humorous in her better moments, and hilariously quick with the barbed comeback when a talk show host pushes her buttons, the Garland on display here is sharply intelligent and keenly ambitious, despite her fitful addictions.
Her increasing anxiety as opening night approaches brings out all Judy’s considerable “bag of tricks” in getting drugs, as well as her painful vulnerability. She clings to Mickey, pleading with him one moment and cursing him the next. “Arguing is like Ritalin to you,” Mickey tells her. In one hilarious and poignant scene, Judy and Mickey slug it out verbally while Anthony plays counterpoint on the piano. Talk about a testy triangle.
Ross, the red hot star in The Boy from Oz, is more than a handsome boy-toy as Judy’s latest fatal attraction. His Mickey is neither an exploitative bully nor a weak-willed pushover. He struggles to keep control when a seemingly fragile Judy, desperate for a fix, becomes a ferocious wildcat. Ross’s Mickey holds his thin, trembling fiancé close to him and strokes her hair as one would a terrified child, convincing us he loves her for more than her stardom. Whether she’s wildly wailing or stumbling drunk, he picks her up, takes her to bed and ultimately does what he thinks he has to do to save the day, the star’s career and the whole shebang.
Curtis’s Anthony, on the other hand, is so attuned to Judy’s every mood, he flinches when she does. In a touching scene, he calms her jitters by putting on her makeup before a big show. He offers to take her away from the bright lights and demanding audience expectations to a quiet life with walks along the river. Acknowledging he can’t furnish “fireworks in the bedroom,” Anthony throws out another option. “I’m sure we can find somebody for you on the pier,” he says hopefully. Desperation takes many comic turns in this play.
Anthony is the man on the bench when Judy, flying on uppers she’s finagled from a pharmacist fan and settled with a whiskey or two, launches into the trademark songs she made her own. The windows of the suite widen and we’re in a classy nightclub where conductor Adam C. Wright and his smooth five-member orchestra back the singer with style and clarity.
Lutz’s already stunning verisimilitude to Garland becomes even more eerily exact when she delivers moving renditions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the boisterous “Trolley Song,” and the great blues song, “Just in Time.” Reproducing the power and brassy vibrato of the singer’s late concerts, she closes the first act with a socko version of “The Man That Got Away.” For a moment, the real live, tremulous Lutz, singing through her pain in front of us, feels more like the Judy of legend than the clips of the star’s songs on YouTube. Wow.
If anybody knows how to make musical theater happen, it’s Cheryl Denson. She’s done it again with a faultless cast, an all-out performance by a youthful star—and a play that shines a strobe light into the thrilling, bitter, soaring, flailing, ecstatic personality that was Judy Garland.
When this level of theater happens, you need to get your tickets in advance. Uptown’s got a hit.