By Brooks Appelbaum
“End of the Rainbow,” by Peter Quilter, running at Music Theatre of Connecticut through April 23, takes us into Judy Garland’s private life during her London concerts at The Talk of the Town, only months before her death. The show dramatizes Garland’s joy -- disturbingly over-wrought -- at having found what she calls the love of her life in her new fiancee, Mickey Deans, as well as her tender affection for her long-time pianist, Anthony. The three-hander also, and inevitably, focuses on Garland’s struggle to end her addiction to drugs and alcohol, and on her bottomless insecurities. Kevin Connors, Artistic Director of MTC, directs with a sure hand, and though the play is difficult to watch, the performances are strong and affecting.
Luke Darnell, as Deans, captures a difficult role beautifully, laying bare Deans’ frustration with Garland’s volatility and his desperate need for her success. As her manager as well as her lover, he is all too aware that Garland is deeply in debt, and thus determined that she will fulfill her contract, even when she is in no condition to do so. Darnell also lets us see Deans’ devotion to Garland, while keeping alive the troubling question of whether his devotion is to a woman, a star, or -- as Anthony accuses -- “a meal ticket.”
Thomas Conroy’s Anthony provides a welcome steadiness to what, of necessity, is mainly a frantic pace. Much of the play’s conflict involves Anthony’s wish to take Garland away from the performing world that he believes is killing her, and Dean’s belief that not only must Garland perform to live, but that she lives to perform.
Conroy’s Anthony drives two scenes that provide welcome sweetness amidst Garland’s frenzied anxiety or anxious bravado. In one, he offers himself as a make-up artist extraordinaire, and applies Garland’s make-up to lift her spirits; and in another, he “proposes” to her, offering to rescue her from performing and to cherish her with his savings, his cottage, and his unending care. Naturally, since Anthony is openly gay, his offer is more wistful than realistic, as Garland reminds him. But Conroy makes his proposal painfully tempting. If only, we wonder…
Any production of “End of the Rainbow” ultimately requires a remarkable leading lady. Coleen Sexton looks very little like Judy Garland (most notably, she is quite a bit taller and her body is that of a healthy woman, rather than that of a sickly child, as Judy’s was during this period). However, and surprisingly, these details only make her performance the more astonishing. She does not impersonate Garland; rather, she brings the audience fully into the experience of a full-blooded, heart-breaking, complicated character. And in her performances of Garland’s songs at The Talk of the Town (which are the best part of the show), she has melded her own remarkable voice with Judy’s signature vocal mannerisms, and she perfectly portrays Garland’s idiosyncratic physical gestures. The play itself is nearly unbearable, and Garland’s dialogue comes close to alienating the audience as much as they do Deans and Anthony, whom she adroitly manipulates. Sexton doesn’t soften the story in the least, but she does give it a warmly beating heart.
Rounding out the cast is Matt Densky, playing a number of comic roles. Connors has directed Densky to overplay the comedy, and while this may please some audience members, the tone seemed to belong in another script.
Technically, one of this production’s strengths is the venue’s intimacy. We feel that we are in the hotel room, and we are certainly in Garland’s audience at the Talk of the Town. Jordan Janota’s set design is elegant, and Michael Blagys’ lighting creates smooth transitions between the private scenes and the concerts. In addition to his lovely performance and piano playing as Anthony onstage, Thomas Conroy is the Music Director, guiding a skillful three-piece band: Henry Lugo on bass, Chris Johnson on drums, and Gary Ruggiero on reeds. I only wish that Connors had worked with Costume Designer Diane Vanderkroff to bring in costumes that more closely resemble what Garland wore during these final concerts. However, Sexton’s changes must be quick, and I understand the need for simplicity.
Those who love anything to do with Judy Garland, whether happy or heartrending, will be glad they saw this fine production. If you wish to preserve your visions of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” “A Star is Born,” or other Garland glories, be warned: this may not be the play for you.