Thomas J. Cox and Hollis Resnik (photo by Michael Brosilow)
Call it serendipity. I saw the Milwaukee Rep’s production of End of the Rainbow a few hours before the internet was abuzz with news from the Golden Globes award show, that annual festival of Hollywood hagiography. The coincidence suggests, in a way, that little has changed in the odd love-hate relationship between the stars and the stargazers. We soak up the Red-Carpet chit-chat, but hungrily consume the tabloid stories that follow—what really happened at the “after parties,” and how much truth was there to Tina’s zinger about Leo and his friendly entourage.
And, of course, Judy Garland was the greatest supernova of them all, her flameout made all the brighter by the media-fueled gossip industry that matured as she did. Peter Quilter’s play finds Garland in the late red giant phase, attempting another “comeback” after various professional disasters in the 1960s. It’s 1968, and her soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Nicholas Harazin), has booked her in a five-week nightclub run in London. They arrive at their posh London hotel suite, and we instantly are privy to Garland’s skewed sense of reality. Knowing her recent track record, the hotel manager insists on payment in advance, but Garland complains that the palatial quarters are tiny compared to the last time she stayed there.
From there, we are given a heaping helping of Garland’s “star quality,” not only through several signature songs performed in a recreation of that London nightclub act, but through events and scenes that suggest aspects of Garland’s well-known personality: the sense of entitlement, the ego, and the assorted pharmaceuticals that help her mask and deal with her deep insecurity and seemingly boundless need for love and adoration.
Quilter’s play dates from 2006, but it didn’t garner too much notice until 2010, when Tracie Bennett drew raves in London and New York for her star turn as Garland. Mark Clements' excellent production at The Rep shows why. Quilter doesn’t offer any new insights on star power and celebrity, Garland’s life and personality, or the tragedy of a life forever in the spotlight. The central trio of characters captures the old dynamic of Garland’s story (and that of other Hollywood tragedies like Marilyn Monroe): both Deans and her music director, Anthony, (Thomas J. Cox) insist they know what’s best for Judy, and she unsuccessfully tries to negotiate those desires along with her own destructive impulses.
But Quilter does offer the opportunity for a glorious star turn, which is exactly what Hollis Resnik delivers. She captures Garland’s talent and charisma without attempting a copycat imitation. And she movingly depicts the star’s wild fluctuations between self-assured star quality and desperate craving for affection and attention.
In the several musical numbers, she nails Garland’s gifts as a great pop singer—a perfect blend of conversational phrasing and show-stopping drama. And she succeeds in selling the songs—where appropriate—despite the drawback of a pre-recorded score. Of course, there are moments when the songs don’t sell, and these are the show’s most memorable scenes. In less skillful hands, watching a great artist stumble under the weight of self-loathing and addiction could be mere Schadenfreude, but Resnik—obviously working closely with director Clements—makes them powerful enough to suggest the sense of true tragedy that has made Garland the icon she remains. And as Quilter’s play demonstrates, she’ll long be remembered—for better or worse—after the Golden Globe buzz has died and the media has moved on to other celebrity stories of the moment.