Judy Garland was blessed with the gift of a beautiful and unique voice that would bring her fame and fortune. She was also cursed with a habitual drug and alcohol addiction that would rob her of both.
Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow couldn’t be a more fitting title for a show about Judy Garland if he searched the Internet ad infinitum. Garland and her sisters appeared in Vaudeville as The Gumm Sisters. She later went on to appear in a number of Andy Hardy films with pal Mickey Rooney long before she became Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. She wasn’t the first choice for the role. Under contract to MGM, studio chief Myer it is said, wanted Shirley Temple. While this history matters not, in retrospect Garland will forever be identified with the memorable Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
She was seventeen when the movie was completed in 1939. After being told by the studio powers that be that she was unattractive and overweight, she was fed diet pills to become even thinner. Both she and Rooney were given amphetamines to stay awake while making one film after another, and barbiturates to sleep. And so began the addiction.
Intrepid Theatre Company under the taut direction of co founder Christy Yael-Cox and starring the inimitable Eileen Bowman as the fidgety and incorrigible Garland, recently opened to a standing Ovation as the once on top ‘Over The Rainbow’ star Garland was about ready to take her last bow in Peter Quilter’s tragic End of the Rainbow.
Bowman whose professional career includes among others a stint at The Old Globe as Grandma Who in Grinch, Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at Lamb’s as Keely in Pete n Keely with Phil Johnson, Amy in Company at Cygnet and just recently she appeared in L.A. in Ruthless. To her credit she has been nominated and won Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical, Female in 2012 as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and nominated in 2014 as Keely in Pete n Keely as part of the San Diego Theatre Critic’s Circle Craig Noel Awards. She has proven that she is more ready to take on this difficult role as Judy Garland in her waning days.
To say that Ms. Bowman excelled is to understate her miming of the once addicted now almost in remission Garland. When we meet up with her in 1968, London she looks fit and nicely put together in Jeanne Reith’s outfits. She and her next and last husband (that would be five) Mickey Deans (Jeffrey Jones) arrive at the Ritz Hotel in London. She is somewhat agitated as the size of the room and the treatment the hotel management has afforded them. Yet she is shown as playful with Deans thinking that a bit of a romp would solve all her ills.
They are there to try to revive her career and pull in a few dollars to pay some back more than a few million in debts. Afraid that history would repeat itself, the hotel required that her bill be paid in advance. Her credit was so bad that she and Mickey were negotiating with management as the play opens. (Michael McKeon’s Ritz Carlton hotel suite resembles just about any hotel suite tastefully appointed with one exception, this one has an upright piano as a centerpiece.)
Deans, acting as her manager as well as lover, and keeper of the pills (both away from and then enabler) and alcohol has scheduled a series of radio and nightclub appearances for her. Anthony (Chris O’Bryon is also Music Director) her English pianist is also on hand for most of the banter, repartee and downward spiral.
Quilter’s script is fast paced, witty to a fault, glib and resembling a sit -com especially in the first act. Bowman’s Garland is funny, fast on the uptake and somewhat vulgar in her back and forth with Deans. Throughout, she never seems to lose her sense of humor it just gets a bit darker as the need for drugs increases.
After seeing her on several TV appearances in the early 1950’s and Kraft Music Hall and several guest appearances on the Carol Burnet Show, her sense of humor did shine through, but she was on shaky ground most of the time. ‘Whenever I drink water I always feel I’m missing out on something…There has to be a tablet somewhere I could take.’ ‘I didn’t need help– I needed pills. No one got a grip of that. Least of all Minnelli. And Sid didn’t know the half of it… ‘I miss being loved.’ Unfortunately for Judy, she was always looking for love in all the wrong places.
The play moves back and fourth between the hotel jousting with sexual overtones to her state of mind with and without alcohol and drugs to the arrangements made by Mickey concerning Judy’s and Anthony’s nightclub and radio appearances. The more often she was to appear in front of an audience, the more she begged for drugs to take off that little edge before facing an audience.
Bowman makes all the right moves pouting, gesturing with her hands and one time standing on the window sill of her hotel room as a joke, to the horror of her piano player, Anthony. As the begging for a boost intensifies Mickey, who is now in charge of her stash, becomes a much greater influence on her wellbeing. Jones doesn’t take the bait until he does, knowing that if she fails and bombs its toot sweet for the both of them. Jones (recently seen in Quality of Life at Intrepid) doesn’t show the sleaze side of Deans, as it is written, rather he characterizes Deans as a more caring parent who found that trying to control Judy Garland was impossible.
As her pleading and dependence becomes more acute, Anthony, who is openly gay befriends Judy and tries to save her by offering to marry her and keep her safe from all the things that go bump in the night. It was nice gesture but for all intense and purposes, Judy who as depicted in the play, appears to have more of a sex drive than a woman half her age. It was a non- starter. She was in her late forties at the time and Mickey–early thirties (He looked older).
The voice is all Bowman and boy can she belt out a tune. She’s loving, playful, electrifying, full of piss and vinegar and as convincing as a child begging for five more minutes of TV time when in need of drugs. When she performs ten of Judy’s most memorable tunes, (I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, I Belong to London, Just in Time, For Me and My Gal, You Made Me Love You, The Trolley Song, The Man that Got Away, When You’re Smiling Come Rain or Come Shine, Somewhere Over the Rainbow), you wish the show would never end. Her performance is riveting, to say the least.
Strong support comes from both O’Bryon as her accompanist and indirectly her mentor on and off the stage and Jones as someone in over his head taking on a drowning survivor. Judy idolized him. He was her manager, her protector and someone who ‘filled my heart with a greater love than I have ever known.’ He was worshiped and loved by one who felt she had never been loved enough.
Judy Garland was forty-seven when she died of ‘an accidental’ overdose of sedatives, Seconal capsule barbiturates—ten times the dose. Frank Sinatra paid for her New York funeral, and James Madison (her film husband in ‘A Star is Born’) delivered the eulogy. Twenty thousand people filed past her coffin.
For someone whose talent sent so many to spend so much to see her perform, Judy Garland’s voice was a gift, but her life was a living nightmare. Eileen Bowman brought her back for a fleeting yet reflective moment reminding us that somewhere over that rainbow bluebirds will fly, so why oh why?
See you at the theatre.
Dates: through Nov. 29th
Organization: Intrepid Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plazas, Downtown San Diego 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Venue: San Diego Repertory Theatre, Lyceum Space