The facts behind Judy Garland’s death on June 22, 1969 are a matter of public record. Several months after a five-week stint at London’s trendy Talk of the Town, the legendary screen/recording star was found dead at the age of 47 by fifth husband Mickey Deans in the bathroom of their rented Chelsea house, the cause of death “an incautious self-overdosage” of barbiturates.
Peter Quilter’s critically acclaimed End Of The Rainbow, now playing at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, lets us be flies on the walls of Judy and Mickey’s London hotel (and of the London nightclub as well) during that much talked about Talk Of The Town run, and a humdinger of a play and production this is under John Henry Davis’ incisive direction.
Gigi Bermingham follows her Ovation award-winning performance as Maria Callas in ICT’s Master Class with yet another riveting star turn as an even greater gay icon, with the added bonus this time round of hearing Bermingham (herself a much-lauded song stylist) performing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “The Trolley Song,” “The Man that Got Away,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Get Happy” and half-a-dozen other Garland hits to audience cheers.
Michael Rubenstone does revelatory work as 34-year-old Mickey, and not just as an actor giving a dynamic, multi-layered performance. Those who may have deemed Judy’s fifth-and-youngest hubby as a “boy toy” out to get whatever he could from a superstar meal ticket will discover a far different Mickey in Rubenstone’s and Quilter’s hands.
In fact, much of End Of The Rainbow’s fascination comes from seeing just how committed Deans apparently was to getting Garland’s life back on track despite demons that even a hot-&-loving husband could not help her overcome.
Even more fascinating is watching Judy’s gradual but inexorable decline from the drug-and-alcohol-free woman who arrives in London head-over-heels in love and ready to prove herself a force still to be reckoned with to the pills-and-booze-filled hot mess she has become by the final weeks of her Talk Of The Town run.
The always marvelous actor-singer-dancer-pianist Brent Schindele costars touchingly as Judy’s (presumably fictionalized) accompanist Anthony, a stand-in for every gay man who has ever loved Judy from afar (and presumably for Quilter himself), with Wallace Angus Bruce completing the cast in a trio of nicely delineated cameos.
Those expecting the kind of Judy Garland impersonation that has become many a drag queen’s stock in trade should stand advised. The fabulous Bermingham interprets rather than impersonates the legend, and though it takes a while to get used to Bermingham’s octave-higher speaking voice in place of Judy’s much deeper growl, the L.A. stage star’s deeply felt work is impressive indeed, and never more so than when she takes center stage to perform one Garland hit after another, a combination of tour-de-force vocals and signature Judy moves that add up to yet another Bermingham gem.
Schindele doubles as musical director, his keyboard expertise equaled by fellow musicians Max O’Leary (trumpet), Ashley Jarmack (clarinet, saxophone, and flute) and John Carbone (drums), who appear as if by magic whenever Aaron Jackson’s terrific Ritz hotel suite opens up to become London’s Talk Of The Town. (Resident property designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles score too for their spot-on knickknacks and other accoutrements.)
Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo merits highest marks for her late-60s period fashions, and in particular for recreating the Judy look we all know so well, and resident hair and wig designer gives Bermingham an okay, if a tad too bouffant, Judy wig, and Rubenstone a just-right Mickey do.
Lighting designer Donna Ruzika does a fabulous job of alternating between intimate hotel lighting and flashier night club lights. Sound designer Paul Fabre insures that vocals and instrumentals are impeccably mixed.
Kaitin Kelly is assistant director. End Of The Rainbow is produced by ICT artistic director caryn desai. Pat Loeb is production stage manager and Alexis Nicole Robles assistant stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting assistant.
No one will probably ever know exactly what happened behind closed doors during Judy Garland’s five-week stint at Talk Of The Town, but Peter Quilter’s End Of The Rainbow does a darned good job of imagining it, and I for one could hardly have been more thrilled about my two-hour-long fly-on-the-wall Date With Judy.
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
February 26, 2015
Photos: Suzanne Mapes