ST. PETERSBURG — The idea of a play about Judy Garland toward the end of her life comes with at least two roadblocks.
Thirty years after The Wizard of Oz, the troubles faced by the former teen star — turbulent relationships, multiple suicide attempts, booze and pills — were all well known. This can't be about irony or potential gone to waste. The world has long been there and done that.
What else is new?
The musical challenge is even more daunting. A biopic of any kind has to include music. Who will play Garland?
The answer to all of these questions is don't worry about it. End of the Rainbow at Freefall Theatre has got you covered. This production of Peter Quilter's 2005 musical drama has it all. Directed by producing artistic director Eric Davis, this show delivers the acid contrasts you might expect between an image defined by dreaminess and the harshest realities, with a tragedy with more than a touch of comedy.
In a London hotel suite in December 1968, Garland and the two men who don't like each other are looking at a six-week run, the latest in a series of comebacks. Both Anthony, her pianist, and fiance Mickey want to protect her from herself, but for different reasons and in decidedly contrasting ways. The star is a tough case, with decades of practice in manipulating doctors and pharmacists for barbiturates and amphetamines, even secreting the pills in the furniture or the hems of dresses.
"I've been stepping around guys like you for years," she says.
Most importantly, this show supplies Melissa Minyard, whose performance of Garland breaks the mold. Before she sings, there's a question on the minds of audience members, whether they know it's there or not.
Can she do this?
Early on, she rehearses I Can't Give You Anything But Love with her pianist (Michael Ursua, who, besides giving an empathetic and convincing performance as Anthony and conducting a six-piece band just offstage, is an excellent pianist). From her first notes, the thought changes to, "Well, that's settled."
The show deftly switches settings from the suite to her sold out performance halls, with occasional video of London streets projected on a wall to remind us where we are and when. Minyard goes on to belt out superb renditions of favorites in the vein of You Made Me Love You, Come Rain or Come Shine, When You're Smiling and many more.
Robert Teasdale plays the fiance, Mickey Deans, balancing the outward appearance of a smooth nightclub manager and backstage fixer with controlling boyfriend in what appears to be a loveless union from the start. He's not always sympathetic and even comes off as shallow and basically mean, just how the part is written. This is a limited man who is vastly overmatched by his partner and the circumstances, and Teasdale pulls that off.
Daniel Schwab plays multiple ancillary roles in the cast of four, memorably as the reserved host of a disastrous BBC interview. Together the men provide reliable, sure handed support for Garland. The musical background of Davis, a former arts magnet school music teacher, Ursua and Minyard take this play with music beyond the level of what would be expected even from a full-blown musical.
A hint of just how good it is: Over the Rainbow is in there and it's lovely, but that song is not the high point of the show. By the time it comes along, everything has been said and done. There is nothing left to do but remember a brilliant artist, gone too soon.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.