Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Reverend’s Review: Judy, Judy, Judy

When the 2012 Broadway sensation End of the Rainbow made its Los Angeles premiere the following year, I was far from enamored of its no-holds-barred portrayal of musical great Judy Garland a few months prior to her sudden death from a drug overdose in 1969 at the age of 47. Despite a galvanizing, Tony-nominated performance by Tracie Bennett as Garland, Peter Quilter’s play struck me as demeaning and borderline-sensationalistic. It also seems to, strangely, credit Garland's gay fans for simultaneously keeping her career alive while hastening her decline. You can read my review of the LA production as well as my fuller critique of the play itself here.

End of the Rainbow has returned to the LA area in its first local production courtesy of International City Theatre (ICT). It is now playing through March 15th at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, which proves to be a more appropriate setting for the play and its four cast members than the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre. As directed by John Henry Davis, ICT’s is a smartly scaled-down production that naturally limits Quilter’s tendency to go over the top in his depiction of the booze- and drug-fueled former star of film, stage and TV.

Garland is played here by Gigi Bermingham, who won the LA theatre critics' Ovation Award two years ago for her turn as Maria Callas in ICT's production of Master Class. She is also recognizable as one of the broker-ish salesladies ("Let's close!") in a current AT&T television commercial. Bermingham is a studious and resourceful actor and her interpretation of the iconic Garland is difficult to fault, even if her east coast-accented voice occasionally reminded me more of Megan Mullally's Karen from Will & Grace than Garland during the dialogue scenes. When Bermingham sings, however, her voice and vocal stylings are uncannily similar and more authentic than Tracie Bennett's. This is especially evident during her showstopping performance of "Come Rain or Come Shine" during the play's second act.

Her three male supporting cast members offer fine support. Brent Schindele plays accompanist/confidante Anthony, an amalgamation of Garland's apparently numerous gay musical directors in various parts of the world. As Mickey Deans, the manager who would briefly become Garland's fifth husband, Michael Rubenstone embodies a potent mix of cocky hetero swagger, business know-how and genuine concern for his fiancée. Cute ICT newcomer Wallace Angus Bruce indelibly portrays a handful of brief other roles.

The technical aspects of the production are top notch, as is usually the case with ICT. Set designer Aaron Jackson supplies an elegant (if amusingly too small for Garland) hotel suite that transitions seamlessly into London's Talk of the Town cabaret. It also does so less bombastically than the earlier Broadway/LA production. Kim DeShazo, ICT's Resident Costume Designer, provides period-perfect outfits for all with additional, exquisite replicas of several of Garland's performance ensembles. Finally, lighting designer Donna Ruzika's work deserves mention, especially during the several musical numbers within the play.

In short, this is a fine production of a so-so biographical work. ICT just last season performed Glorious!, playwright Quilter’s comical take on real-life heiress turned tone-deaf but popular singer Florence Foster Jenkins (soon to be the subject of a motion picture starring Meryl Streep as Jenkins). It is nearly identical to End of the Rainbow in conceptualization and structure, complete with fawning gay accompanist. As this scenario is apparently Quilter's forte, one can only wonder who he will dramatize next. Perhaps Better Midler's early bathhouse years with Barry Manilow at the piano?

For End of the Rainbow tickets or more information, visit the ICT website.

Reverend’s Rating: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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