By Bradley Rohlf
Max & Louie’s production of Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow” is full of energy, surprises, and sadness, much like actress-singer Judy Garland’s own life.
This play-with-songs opened on June 22, the anniversary of her death. Directed by David New, the gripping performances on display are a fitting tribute to the pain and tragedy of Garland’s life.
It’s December 1968 in London, and Garland is preparing to stage a comeback. Again. Now in her mid-forties, gone are the days of Hollywood drama, affairs, and stardom, but all the baggage of that life has come with her and is moving in to the Ritz Hotel.
Running out of money, Garland’s newly minted young fiancé, Mickey (who is also now her manager), needs this show to be a success. Along with pianist Anthony, they are trying to reign in Garland’s histrionic antics and dependence on pills and alcohol to focus on the series of performances scheduled.
At her first entrance, Angela Ingersoll was met with a brief moment of stunned silence followed by welcoming applause – she had brought Judy back to life before even uttering a word.
From there, her gripping personality steamrolls over everyone in the room, and we all thank her for it. It is impossible not to fall in love with her, despite Garland’s struggles with addiction and mental health.
Thomas Conroy plays Anthony, hired again after some years to accompany Garland’s performances. He has seen her at her worst, but some sort of stubborn love brings him back. Conroy exudes control, he knows what he wants, and when to walk away.
Kyle Hatley is Mickey Deans, who despite only knowing her for a few months, is already fully committed to a romantic and business relationship with Judy. He is youth personified, experiencing an internal tug-of-war between love for his partner and commercial ambition.
All members of the cast achieve masterful portrayals of their respective characters, which is no surprise as most of them have played these roles before. Conroy performed the show with Music Theatre of Connecticut last year, and Hatley and Ingersoll recently appeared in “Rainbow” at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre.
Ingersoll has also portrayed Garland is a PBS special entitled, “Get Happy: Angela Ingersoll Sings Judy Garland.” She performed “Judy Garland: Come Rain or Come Shine” at the Playhouse at Westport in their Artists Lounge Live series April 12-15.
The only actor on stage new to this show is St. Louis’ own Paul Cereghino, who embodies a variety of cameo characters throughout the play. He particularly shines as a nervous BBC radio personality desperately trying to maintain his composure as he navigates an interview with an increasingly distracted Garland.
Even for those familiar with Garland’s tragic story, seeing the compounded effects of her life is sorrowful to watch. As a child on the MGM lot she was pushed beyond the limit, given pills to speed her up and slow her down. Much of her life history seems marked by moving from one husband to affair to another.
Each man in the story attempts to be some version of a knight in shining armor. But as Ingersoll wrestles with past and current addiction, depression, and expectations, one feels compelled to leap out of their seat, push Hatley and Conroy out of the way and declare, “No, I can save her!”
But of course, she was beyond that.
Intercutting the drama is the music. Songs are placed throughout the show as rehearsals or bits of her performances. These moments are sometimes enchanting, with Ingersoll transporting us to memories of former Garland roles, and other times deeply unsettling, revealing and pulling us deeper into the fissures of her increasingly deteriorating life.
The musical numbers are directed by Conroy, who not only plays the bandleader, but is the bandleader. And the orchestra sells every song. They are not merely an accompanying pit, they are Judy’s band. Kevin Gianino on drums, Guy Cantonwine on bass, Jeffrey Collins on woodwinds, and Kurt Silver and Dan Smith on trombone and trumpet are the musicians.
The tight band and Ingersoll’s vocals are reinforced by Jacob Boshears’ balanced sound design, seamlessly transitioning between intimate rehearsal sessions in the hotel room and full stage numbers.
Framing these changes is scenic design by Dunsi Dai, who presents us with a period hotel suite as the static centerpiece, flanked by a grand proscenium and vaudevillian footlights. This not only suggests the stage during the concert scenes but implies that none of Garland’s private moments were truly private.
Guiding us through scenes is Patrick Huber’s lighting design, helpfully denoting place and adding to the spectacle with color-splashed hanging drapes, and moving light bulbs dotting the proscenium arch.
I’m rarely enthusiastic about dresses, but Bill Morey and Teresa Doggett’s costume design made me a believer. In addition to outfitting the entire cast in the proper time and place, the selection of historical Garland looks added to the magic.
The entire ensemble takes on this story as a labor of love, as evidenced by the members who have returned to these roles.
“End of the Rainbow”’ is a living history, showing us not only a moment in time, but celebrates the impact of this beloved entertainer.
And ultimately, allows us to grieve for the tragedy that became the gifted Garland’s scandal-plagued, self-destructive legend’s legacy.
Max and Louie Productions presents “End of the Rainbow” for a limited run June 22-July 1 at the Grandel Theatre, 1 Grandel Square, St. Louis. For tickets, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit www.maxandlouie.com