There is one brief moment when we stop wondering, and we see Judy Garland in all she ever was during "End of the Rainbow," which opened Friday night at the Milwaukee Rep.
We have already seen the drug-addled Garland, and weâ€™ve seen the petulance and haughty grandeur that were such an integral part of her persona. And weâ€™ve heard her sing.
During a London cabaret performance, she sings "The Trolley Song." And when actress Hollis Resnik gets to a "clang, clang, clang went the trolley" line, she turns to the side and gives it a little bit of choo-choo with her arms, legs and heart, looking like a train.
The moment is exquisite and reflects the soaring majesty that made Garland what some people call the greatest American entertainer, ever.
I donâ€™t know about that, but whoever is ahead of Garland in the lore of show business can certainly smell her hot on their heels for first place.
The play, by Peter Quilter, is a no-holds-barred slice of the last major gig of Garlandâ€™s career, a concert series at the Talk of the Town cabaret in London. Just months after that series, she died of a drug overdose.
The last two men in Garlandâ€™s life, which was filled with men, were Mickey Deans, the much younger man who was to become her fifth husband, and Anthony, her pianist.
The show, under the tender direction of Mark Clements, artistic director at the Rep, gives us the full-on Judy Garland, and my reactions were all over the map, just like her life.
I was appalled and fascinated by her deep and abiding affection and addiction for artificial stimulant. Uppers, downers and alcohol all fueled her life. I was thrilled by her onstage magic.
Garland never met a tabloid she didnâ€™t love, and the turbulence of her life and career made for a great reading treat for the millions who adored her.
But while her public persona spun out of control like the bouncing balls in a lottery drawing, her private life was full of both confidence and fear.
"When was it ever about what I want," she cried to Mickey. "I donâ€™t need help; I need pills."
Mickey spends all his time trying to keep Garland straight, while Anthony, gay and fostering a deep loving affection for Garland, is suspicious of Mickeyâ€™s motives and counsels Judy not to marry him.
In the end, Mickey realizes that the most important thing in his life is having Judy on stage, and if it takes pills to get and keep her there, heâ€™s willing to be a supplier.
Chicago actress Resnik â€“ the first American-born actress to play this role â€“ delivers a performance that is lushly drawn and electrifying.
She is funny when she needs to be funny and pathetic when she needs to be pathetic. She has a marvelous voice, and her renditions of Garlandâ€™s songs are an absolute wonder.
This role demands so much more than just a singer and an actor. It demands a commitment that matched Garland, and Resnik has it.
She is more than skillfully aided by Nicholas Harazin, a familiar figure to Milwaukee audiences who plays Mickey and Thomas J. Cox who brings Anthony to life.
Harazan gives Mickey a diligent and frustrated mien, faced with a woman who he either loves or just wants to manage. That question is never answered, but he is a startling young talent.
Cox creates the most humane of all the men in Garlandâ€™s life and wears his love on his sleeve. He gives Anthony a fierce backbone cloaked in a protective desire that is most likely unique in Garlandâ€™s life.
The play is what weâ€™ve come to expect from the Rep under Clements' guidance. The set design by Dan Conway is spectacular, switching over and over from a hotel suite to the cabaret.
Perhaps the only unanswered question is in this play is whether Garlandâ€™s excess was a character flaw or simply a way to keep doing what she did best. Perhaps nobody knows the answer to that.
Regardless, at the end of the play, one of the rarest of events happened.Â I cried during a curtain call.
The show ended, of course, with a touching variation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The lights went out, and when Resnik came to the stage for a bow, the strains of the song continued through the theater and deep into my heart. Crying at a curtain call. Absolutely amazing.
End of the Rainbow continues through Feb. 9. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.
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