It’s been nearly 45 years since Judy Garland’s untimely death, the culmination of a tumultuous career marked by triumphs and tragedies and accentuated by the abuse of untold uppers and downers, all washed down with alcohol.
Yet, the star who first captured America’s hearts as a teen in “The Wizard of Oz” and would later become an icon for the LGBT community continues to fascinate and inspire. The latest example is Peter Quilter’s play with music, “End of the Rainbow,” receiving its regional premiere at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.
Quilter’s play, which debuted in Australia in 2005, was mounted around the world and eventually landed on Broadway in 2012. Unlike the many biopics and mini-series that have already chronicled the singer’s life, “End of the Rainbow” focuses on the last six months of Garland’s life, a period during which she attempted yet another “comeback” to her stalled career, this time in London.
Kathy St. George accepts a challenging — if not impossible — task, adopting Judy’s vocal and physical mannerisms, performing her signature songs (“The Trolley Song,” “The Man Who Got Away”) and dragging the audience along on the self-destructive rollercoaster ride that was Garland’s life.
While St. George does an admirable job especially with the vocals, the problem is we’ve seen Judy done better, mostly by drag queens and female impersonators who also sing (Christopher Peterson is one of the best and he does Liza, too). Garland’s drug and alcohol-fueled binges, serious and sad as they were, have become camp over the years and it’s nearly impossible to pull off without eliciting a chuckle from any gay man who’s seen a good drag performer tackle the role.
Despite the inherent problems with casting Judy, Quilter’s script is tight and manages to work in plenty of background without making the play feel like an A&E Biography episode.
Collin McPhillamy, a familiar face to South Florida theater audiences, offers a touching portrait of gay life in the late ‘60s as Anthony, Garland’s Scottish pianist. He’s a little bitchy, but knows a certain amount of decorum is necessary if he is to sustain his career in largely homophobic British society.
Likewise, Michael Laurino — sideburns and all — is a convincing Mickey Deans, the younger nightclub owner who would become Garland’s fifth husband. Like many husbands before him, Deans sincerely tried to protect Garland from her addictions, and this loving frustration is inherent in Laurino’s portrayal.
This production is enhanced by a fine set design from Tim Bennett. An opulent suite in the London Ritz transforms in seconds into a dazzling nightclub as a sliding wall reveals the six-piece combo (under the capable direction of David Nagy) backing up St. George’s stirring vocals.
St. George never quite pulls off a convincing Judy — and perhaps no woman could —but the production is still a credible and entertaining look at those final days in the life of one of the greatest stars of stage and screen. But, maybe it’s time to let Judy finally rest in peace.
If You Go
“End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter
Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. through Feb. 9
Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 180 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
Tickets $15-55 at ActorsPlayhouse.org