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Most people are likely to remember the first time they, as children, saw The Wizard of Oz. It is unquestionably one of the most unique and iconic films of all time. Seventy-something years after its release it continues to hypnotize and inspire its viewers and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to run out of steam anytime soon.

At the center of the film was Judy Garland in a breakout role that launched and later haunted her career, rocketing her into stardom and establishing her as a household name at the young age of 17.

Fed amphetamines, barbiturates and diet pills by those surrounding her even before being cast as Dorothy, the road to Garland’s success was built just as much on her talent as on her growing drug dependency. In spite of being deemed “America’s Sweetheart,” she required constant re-assurance that she was talented and attractive by those around her. Her tragic fall from stardom mirrored the coming eras of drug-laden, pop-icon deaths, like a twisted-Hollywood-prophesy.

Peter Quilter’s play End of The Rainbow, currently playing at the ICT, focuses on the end of Garland’s life rather than on her formative, star-making years. At its most successful it paints a vivid and uncompromising picture of the super-star at a time when she had already started to fade out. With glimpses of her performances at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub and illuminating insight of her personal life and relationship with the last of her five husbands, Mickey Deans, End of the Rainbow manages, more than it fails, to find a balance between being an intimate character study and a crowd pleasing review. Each of these components keeps the other from overwhelming the other, with the real life drama grounding the musical performances in subtext and the songs lightening the tone of the drama.

The ICT production of End of the Rainbow is handsome and professional as their work always is, yet while the play is engaging and tightly staged, the casting of Gigi Bermingham as Garland is a bit of a mis-step. While Bermingham is a great actress, stepping into a role as iconic and well known as Judy Garland is no easy task. When she plays Garland at home, removed of the performer’s context that the public recognizes her in, it is far easier to go along for the ride, allowing us to see Garland as a real person. When it comes time for Bermingham to play Garland the performer, however, it is a different story.

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Garland had one of the most recognizable voices of all time and Bermingham’s voice just isn’t similar enough to suspend our disbelief. It is nearly impossible to embody an iconic person with any sort of authenticity no matter who you are, or what role you’re playing. One runs the risk of coming across as an impersonator rather than giving a genuine performance that stems from oneself, and often even the best performances by actors playing historical icons feel like they are trying too hard.

Although it is clear to see that Bermingham is a gifted actress, it is also clear that Garland is not the best fit for her. When she sings Garland’s songs you can see her trying to embody qualities that may have come more naturally to a different actress. Regardless, her straight scenes play so well that she still manages gets under the skin. Though she is on an uphill climb throughout, she ultimately manages make Judy her own.

As Mickey Deans, Garland’s last of five husbands, Michael Rubenstone does a handsome enough job but makes it hard for us to understand whose side (Judy’s or his own) he’s actually on. At the opening of the play, Deans is not only Garland’s fiancé, he also is her tour manager, giving all of his time, energy and money to make her tour as successful as possible. Since Garland is broke and in debt, this six-week run in London is necessary for the both of them and he initially plans to keep her sober throughout the duration of the run. As Garland starts to fall back into drugs and alcohol, his gears switch from disciplinarian-lover and watcher of her well being, to feeding her the pills she seems to require in order to go on with the show.

Rubenstone plays Deans as though he is truly in love with Garland or at least very fond of her. This adds some necessary conflict to their relationship but ultimately confuses the battle over her well being that grows as the play goes on. It is important to the End of the Rainbow’sstructure that Deans remains a bit ambiguous in his intentions, but without the audience feeling that he ultimately has his own well-being in mind over Garland’s, the conflict that rages between Deans and Anthony Chapman, the pianist hired to play with Judy during her six week run, seems out of place.

Anthony clearly has Garland’s best interest in mind at all times, regardless of financial or social obligations. If Deans were in the same boat, he and Anthony’s conflict would lessen. This lack of clarity renders Rubenstone’s performance more muddled than ambiguous and ultimately, serviceable but underwhelming.

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Speaking of Anthony, Brent Schindele steals the show with not only the play’s strongest performance but also in serving as its music director (and pianist!). Anthony’s character is the only one that is fully fictional but he is written so well and performed with such nuance by Schindele that he feels more flesh and blood by the play’s end than Garland herself. The complex love and admiration Anthony feels towards Garland is the sort that only a homosexual man can feel for a woman who has been an icon and sense of inspiration throughout the course of his life. It’s the kind of love that one can have for something they can never actually posses. As that love and admiration becomes more ambiguous and edges its way into a confused physical reality, the sadness and conflict of Anthony’s character deepens and he works his way into our hearts. Schindele’s musical direction is also marvelous, providing just enough oomph to make Garland’s songs pop. He is this production’s greatest asset.

John Henry Davis’s direction keeps things moving briskly and balances out the dramatic and comedic elements of Quilter’s play with grace. Unfortunately though, with some uneven casting and an inability to elevate the end of both acts into the dramatic territory they suggest, he turns out a production that is engaging and lively but lacking in its sub textual and deeper potential.

Until the end of act one, all of Garland’s songs are sung in the believable context of either a rehearsal or a live performance. At the end of act one, the play breaks that rule and has Garland sing The Man That Got Away in response to Deans walking out on her. There she is, lying on the floor of her hotel room, when all of a sudden she starts to sing as though the scene were from some deranged musical in her head. The curtains that usually part in the upstage window to reveal the band in the club open during her song, but the hotel window remains, suggesting something surreal and uneasy. The scene is almost brilliant, seeming to suggest that Garland can no longer differentiate between her actual and her performer personas. Sadly, this moment of innumerable possibilities stops there and the scene is played straight instead of diving deeper into the theatrical waters the text suggests.

Likewise, the end of the second act, following Anthony’s touching final monologue, has a slapped-on and unnecessary epilogue. For the first time the play indulges the audience in what it thinks they want to see instead of staying true to the tone it has taken so long to create. Again, the song’s performance is confused as to which reality it exists in and lets the air out of what could have been a touching and understated ending.

These are quibbles with the writing as well as with the directing but with some stronger choices on Davis’s part, I feel these issues could have been smoothed over and perhaps even turned into something profound. As it stands however, both act’s endings are a little lackluster, a disappointment when so much of what transpires before them is so enjoyable.

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Sets by Aaron Jackson and Lighting by Donna Ruzika are all evocative of the play’s time and place without being distracting. Likewise, costumes (besides Deans’ poorly chosen wig) by Kim DeShazo are equally on point. Paul Fabre’s sound design is also excellent, though I was left wishing the piano were a little higher up in the mix when the whole band played together.

Ultimately, End of the Rainbow is a much better show than I had expected it to be. In spite of a few missteps in its script (namely its ending), it handles its subject matter maturely and presents a well-rounded and insightful look at one of the most misunderstood stars of all time.

While the ICT’s production by no means fails the material, it makes one wonder what the show would feel like with someone in the role of Garland who was a more natural fit. Though I doubt the dramatic scenes would have improved much, I know the poignancy of the songs could have. Ultimately, when dealing with a figure as iconic, gnarled and tragic as Miss Garland, if you’re going to conjure up her ghost, you better damn well know what you’re getting yourself into.