5 reasons to see End of the Rainbow at freeFall Theatre
Award-winning performer Melissa Minyard unleashes the sass and salty-sweet charms of Judy Garland during her final days.
Judy Garland, the star of The Wizard of Oz, A Star Is Born and Meet Me in St. Louis was a legendary child star, LGBT fan favorite and powerhouse vocalist.
She was also a victim of neglect and abuse, an addict, alcoholic, rageaholic and an enigmatic ball of dysfunction.
There’s such a swirl of lurid controversy to Garland’s biography that telling her story runs a risk of caricature and movie-of-the-week melodrama.
Thankfully, playwright Peter Quilter, freeFall Theatre and award-winning actor Melissa Minyard revisit Garland’s final days with a script that shows more than tells — with sporadic shouting and cross-stage projectiles. Unavoidable, really.
Set in 1968 in a London hotel suite and a nightclub, End of the Rainbow begins with Garland (Minyard) having just arrived for her last of many comebacks. Mickey Deans (Robert Teasdale), Garland’s manager and much younger, soon-to-be husband (her fifth), and Anthony (Michael Ursua), the latest in a long line of pianists. (Daniel Schwab plays an assortment of other roles with professional agility.) The men do not like each other but share a common task — keeping Garland on task and sober and making sure she shows up for her performances at the Talk of the Town.
End of the Rainbow can be seen Wednesdays through Sundays through June 4. Post-play talkbacks planned after Friday night performances at 10 p.m. Here are five reasons to grab your tickets to this nearly completely sold-out run:
1.) Do we even have to say it? Its star, Melissa Minyard.
Perhaps, this could be the one reason to see the show if you couldn’t count on freeFall’s first-rate production chops.
The Carbonell award and Theatre Tampa Bay award winner, previously seen in freeFall’s The Light in the Piazza and Broadway’s Les Miserables, packs some unbelievable pipes under her petite frame. She’s on point with Garland’s bon mots and lesser moments, and during the gorgeous musical numbers, hits the high notes and belts out with just the right vibrato and howling emotionality. At times you wonder if she’s too demure and too vocally pristine to pull off Garland’s untamed drama, but her vocal finales reveal that ferocity and bravura that only Miss Judy could maneuver all at once. And to be fair, Teasdale and Ursua effectively convey their love and concern with prismatic dimension. Mickey comes across more selfish and less sympathetic than the sweetly devoted Anthony, but both actors bring humanity to their roles.
2. The live musical accompaniment.
Performing offstage, obscured by an impressionistic cityscape, a co-ed six-piece band performs marvelously in the background, accompanying timeless favorites like “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “The Man That Got Away.” Musicians include Ursua on piano (and conducting); Irv Goldberg on bass, Melanie Downs on drums, Chris Howard on trumpet, Diana Belcher on woodwinds, Colleen Chrien on trombone. Chris Egan provides orchestration, and Michael Raabe is back with his expert musical direction.
3.) Mood-enhancing lighting and sound.
There’s a moment of brilliant synchronicity when the dressing lights switch off and the stage lights and band come on. Lighting designer Tom Hansen, Sound Designer Stephen Kraack work harmoniously with the meticulous direction of Eric Davis. Other touches include projections of montages that conspire with the atmospheric lighting and Susan Haldeman’s production design to transport the audience back in time.
4.) Exposition that doesn’t hit you over the head.
The play’s effortlessly natural dialogue doesn’t become overwrought but offers just enough to make you come away feeling enlightened and Googling for more if you’re not among the already in-the-know hardcore fans in attendance. We learn about Garland’s oppressive stage mother mom, her previous husbands, her famous friends and her crafty resourcefulness in obtaining resourcefulness. (She even invokes a “China Man” — inappropriateness be damned.) According to Garland biographer Gerald Clarke, her mother first provided Garland pills as a child actor — ones to ramp up energy and others to sleep. Quilter alludes to this horrific piece of history.
5.) Those zingy one-liners.
Dorothy Parker-esque zingers and poignant musings are sprinkled throughout the script. Gems include “I could vomit my dinner into their laps and still be glamorous.” Garland was wickedly funny, and Quilter revives a bevy of her real-life quips even a few that made him cringe a little. For instance, when Judy’s warned of disabled attendees inconvenienced by a show cancellation, she callously quips, ““Well if they wheeled them in, they can wheel them back out again.”
“We’re all frightened,” Anthony reassures. “We go through life like little children. Every single one of us pretending to be an adult. All you can really do is find someone to be with who’s less scared than you are.”
“Immortality would be nice. Yes I’d like that,” Judy says in the play’s final minutes. “Immortality might just make up for everything.”