At its root, theater is about chasing after the impossible.
Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Willy Loman is seeking success. Blanche DuBois wants to live in a world of magic.
Spoiler alert: None of them get what they want.
And neither did Judy Garland, who sought in vain to sustain the ephemeral feeling she got from an applauding audience, which she once described as being wrapped in an enormous heating pad.
Someday, someone will write a play that approaches the full breadth and depth of Garland’s quest after the impossible. But Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow,” which charts the singer’s final months in London, isn’t it. It opened Friday night in a production directed by Lisa Ludwig and starring Natasha Drena.
Fans of Garland or of musical theater in general will find plenty to like in this production, however, largely because of Drena’s impressive vocal impression of Garland. She has tuned her voice to achieve a believable facsimile of Garland’s brassy power and addictive vibrato, delivering moving renditions of “Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “The Man that Got Away,” “Over the Rainbow” and others. David King’s period-perfect set, Brian Cavanagh’s lighting and a fine four-piece orchestra lend some needed sheen to the proceedings.
The trouble begins in the overstretched and repetitive dialogue and action that separates the songs, which follows a wearying formula anyone familiar with Garland’s later life knows well: She takes pills. She drinks. She refuses to perform. She argues with her boyfriend of the moment (Chris Hatch) or her accompanist (Gregory Gjurich). She relents, stumbles onto the stage, and repeats the whole thing the next day.
We get two acts of this repetitive business where there should be one. It’s the same argument repeated ad nauseam in slightly different keys, and occasionally interrupted by a song.
Quilter tries to take us into the thick of Garland’s final descent, painting her incurable neuroses, her vulnerability and her unhinged volatility in strokes so broad as to obscure the nuance and humanity of his chosen character. To this already overwritten caricature, Drena raises the stakes even higher, pumping up Garland’s vaudevillian mannerisms to Billy Eichner levels, shifting her mood swings into overdrive and inflating her amphetamine-driven escapades to sitcom-worthy levels that strain credulity even if their winding path through the Quilter-filter can be traced back to the truth.
The thing about Judy Garland’s later life is that it was a caricature, it was filled with alternating moments of heartbreak and ecstasy and it was indeed often too much to be believed. It hardly needs the sort of exaggerations Quilter and Drena have piled upon it under Lisa Ludwig’s direction. What it needs instead this production thoroughly lacks: nuance, sensitivity and just the tiniest bit of restraint.
It was much the same story the last time we saw a play by Quilter at the Kavinoky, his Florence Foster Jenkins bio “Glorious!” While O’Connell stole that particular show, it was similarly afflicted by a needless desire to pile additional layers of drama upon a story that hardly needed any exaggeration.
The result of this approach in both cases is camp. And camp was not the intended effect.
“End of the Rainbow”
2 stars (Out of four)
Play with music presented through Jan. 31 in Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com.