It seems sacrilegious to call Judy Garland a "minor character," but that's what she was two summers ago in Uptown Players' The Boy From Oz. Her daughter, Liza, was marrying the main character, gay-but-not-out entertainer Peter Allen, and so of course there should be a few scenes with Mama Judy.
But thanks to Janelle Lutz's stunning portrayal then, Garland is back onstage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, and this time it's all about her. Tempestuous, temperamental, and oozing with charm and charisma, Garland was a study in contrasts — how could a woman so universally admired always feel so alone and adrift?
End of the Rainbow, a play with music written by Peter Quilter, tags along with Garland, her pianist Anthony (Christopher Curtis), and her soon-to-be-fifth husband Mickey (Alex Ross, who coincidentally played Allen in Oz) for a five-week concert stint in London. It was to be Garland's last, we find out, as her life-long addiction to pills and alcohol finally caught up with her with an overdose in 1969.
Lutz has been used prominently in the show's marketing since the season was announced, and it wouldn't be a stretch to posit that, if not for her, Uptown wouldn't be attempting this show at all. There's even a photo opp with a larger-than-life Lutz in the lobby to "have your picture taken with a star" after the curtain.
It's all with good reason. Not only does Lutz resemble the iconic singer (thanks to wig design by Coy Covington, makeup by Michael B. Moore, and elegant costumes by Suzi Cranford), but she nails the character-rich vibrato of Garland's signature singing and speaking style. Lutz also happens to be a more talented singer, so when she lets loose with standards such as "The Man That Got Away" and "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, it's the best of both worlds.
Curtis could easily disappear into the role of Garland's timid accompanist, but there's a quiet strength emanating underneath his nervousness. His Anthony sees Garland not as a Hollywood juggernaut or a broken doll, but as a tired woman who simply needs an honest shoulder to cry on.
It's less clear how Mickey Deans sees his betrothed. Despite a truly horrific wig, Ross is still believable as the boy toy Garland parades him around as. But as Garland spirals further and further down he emerges as both a savvy manager and caring partner, albeit one who's not nearly strong enough to conquer someone else's addiction and self-destruction.
The music is the backbone here, and Adam C. Wright leads a top-notch band that is revealed whenever Garland steps "onstage" (Clare Floyd DeVries' set pulls double duty as a ritzy hotel suite and the concert venue). Director Cheryl Denson ultimately gives the people what they want, with Lutz emerging one final time to sing a poignant "Over The Rainbow" after the narration of her death. It's a reminder that even though Judy Garland has taken her final bow, she's not truly gone.
Uptown Player's End of the Rainbow runs through April 17.