End of the Rainbow
Richard Green – Talkin’ Broadway, June 25, 2018
Do you ever catch yourself, when you’re really entranced by a show, secretly imagining the actors on stage are slyly performing it all to you? Of course, you’re probably halfway back in the dark, and they’re up there on stage, blinded by the lights in their eyes. But, vainly, you try to catch their sparkling eyes…
And that’s just one of the seductive powers of End of the Rainbow, Max & Louie’s Pride month offering at the Grandel Theatre (across from Powell Symphony Hall): it sucks you in, with thrilling songs and torrid heartbreak, perfect for the 60-year-old gay man, at least. Another trance-inducing element is just getting lost, staring out over the dizzying brink of sanity, trying to figure out what crazy thing Angela Ingersoll, extremely credible as Judy Garland, is going to do next, in the final weeks of the singer’s life.
It’s not just the madcap humor, either, like dodging a bill collector, or climbing up on a high window-ledge, threatening to jump, or walking out in the middle of a performance or interview (she does both). Because, more than a concert piece, more than a tell-all, behind-the-scenes scandalmonger’s dream, there is a pure intelligence at work in Ms. Ingersoll’s performance. She goes beyond her delicious impersonation of a famous woman who started out her vaudeville career as “Little Miss Leather-Lungs,” before being swallowed up whole by MGM at the age of twelve. Flash-forward nearly 35 years later, and she fairly “dabs” her way onto the stage, in a calculated “sweep,” commanding her bags to be unpacked. But it’s 1968 in London, and she has already lost all her servants. She must rely on her very last husband, the young, reviled nightclub owner Mickey Deans, for just about everything now.
However… this Mickey is played with a young man’s idealism, and a saloon-keeper’s remorselessness, by Kyle Hatley. And he’s a far more sympathetic Mickey Deans than any pop-culture history could have prepared you for. Mr. Hatley still draws groans of disapproval from the audience, when his Deans finally accedes to giving this Judy some black-market Ritalin. (And these might have been a perfectly good solution to all her colossal anxieties, were it not for the frequent alcohol chasers and the well-known, pre-existing amphetamine and barbiturate habits.) But it’s no Andy Hardy movie—their two or three long fights over her train-wreck of a personality equal almost anything in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Yet the jangled nerves of his older fiancée are often balanced out by this Mickey Deans’ reassuring attitude. All the remaining tension is broken up by Ms. Ingersoll’s tribute ballads, which are highly admirable. Still, it’s her spoken odes, to the pills that got away, that seem the most deeply felt of all.
In Peter Quilter’s fast-paced, 150-minute drama-with-music (from 2005), it’s the story of their doomed romance that blasts the action forward, to the seemingly inevitable drug overdose, which occurred on this same night, 49 years before this production’s official opening here in St. Louis. And there’s swagger and sequins to burn, and chaser-lights and deep insights into the art of impersonation that still catch my breath, the next day, from Ms. Ingersoll. On top of all that, more clearly than ever, we are reminded that a bright, focused theatrical spotlight may be the world’s best little white “padded cell” ever devised, for any mental patient with a versified grievance she wants to air. Trapped in its stark confines, every spirit in her soul comes pouring out. And they are legion.
You don’t have to be a Garland aficionado to appreciate all of this, but it helps. A friend (and a “friend of Dorothy”) confided to me six weeks earlier, that he felt he’d been “born without the Judy Garland gene.” Of course, I was dumbfounded. “She’s the doomed woman inside every gay man!” I stammered helplessly, like Vicki Lester in the dressing room scene in 1954’s A Star Is Born. But it doesn’t matter—Ms. Ingersoll’s own performance has something deeper, something enigmatic at its center—like the mysterious, silky sands in the holy ark in the first Indiana Jones movie. And like Spielberg’s Nazis, with their melting faces, none of us can turn away. There’s something dangerous and unreadable in the actress herself. But every kind of beauty and seduction and monstrous power rises out of her, through great acting and singing, under the direction of David New.
Thomas Conroy is excellent as Anthony, the “other man” in the show and her accompanist from five years earlier, when he helped her through a disastrous concert in Australia. Anthony is doomed as well, to watch an idol finally crumble before his eyes. And as the (possibly jealous) gay man who only sees the bad in Mickey, Anthony also gets the last word, marveling at the inevitability of it all, and the waste, and the glory. And, though the show has popped-up with Ms. Ingersoll in a number of other cities, there are elegant local touches as well, with a set dominated by long garlands of fabric, by Dunsi Dai, and fine work on stage from St. Louis phenom Paul Cereghino in a series of smaller roles.