Article Title:Review: Ellie Smith's tribute to Judy Garland
Author or Credit:Larry Jenkins
Published on:10th November 2007 - 06:31 pm
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Story ID:5222
Text:Ellie Smith as Judy Garland End of the Rainbow - a play in two acts by Peter Quilter, Director Colin McColl. Starring Ellie Smith, Paul Barrett, and Edwin Wright, with James Jennings, at Sky City Theatre, Auckland. It's 1967. Judy Garland, legend of screens silver and small, goddess of gays, drug and alcohol addict, megalomaniac, is making the theatrical equivalent of Custer's Last Stand at London's Talk of the Town. Judy, aged 45, in love with much younger Mickey Dean, a Los Angeles club owner, has returned to her favourite town to revive her almost-dead career, killed off by her unstable and erratic behaviour on film sets, television shows and stages throughout the world and resulting in massive debt. This is the situation when she bursts ebulliently through the door of one of London's posh hotels with her lover/manager to open Peter Quilter's rather flawed End of the Rainbow, now showing at Auckland's Sky City Theatre. Judy, in the person of Ellie Smith, is suffering drug and alcohol withdrawal, as her new-found paramour (played with utter dedication and conviction by Edwin Wright, fast becoming one of New Zealand's top actors) bullies and pushes her to succeed in the five-week season at the famous London club without either. Little does he know that his ambitions for her are futile and that in a lifetime of getting her way, both on the set and off, she's become crafty, stubborn, and as devious as any other devout addict at finding substances to abuse, no matter what precautions he takes. Add to the mix her old gay friend and accompanist Anthony Chapman (Paul Barrett), who feels that he knows best for Judy, that he's propping her up on stage and in real life and has done so for years, and you have a potent triangle awash with jealousy and resentment and, to boot, a nitro-glycerine-head as its focus. All this would be fascinating if it really worked, but something vital is missing and that's, as the old song goes, "You gotta have heart." We're not really allowed to sympathise with any of these people, other than to marvel at Judy's ability to self-destruct, to cynically dismiss Mickey when he begins to supply Garland with drugs and alcohol to get her through a season which has turned utterly to custard, and to gape open-mouthed as the gay Chapman declares undying love for her and tries to convince her to run away and let him be her man. As performances, though, it's another ballgame, met not in St. Louis, as in Ms Garland's favourite film, but right there on Sky City's stage. Ellie Smith exudes STAR quality, much as did Judy herself – onstage and in interviews a charmer and a wooer of her adoring public, offstage a cunning, foul-mouthed harridan of monstrous magnitude despite her authentic diminutiveness, richly at one point describing the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, none of whom she exactly towered over, as "little tiny people." She delivers song after song with idiomatic accuracy, and indeed in her lower register often sounds eerily like the real thing. The way she prances nervously, yanking microphone cords and power-punching out the lyrics, is studiedly authentic, reminiscent of the way Garland could deliver the simplest song with great conviction, each one as if it were her last. C'mon Get Happy, The Trolley Song and of course Over the Rainbow all had impact, though the placement of that song, at the very end of the play, with Ellie jutting out into the audience on a runway which then rose into the air at the last cadence, was a bit of cheap theatre. Paul Barrett's effete characterisation of the muso was astonishing, as was his piano playing (which, if not him, was uncannily synched). His mannerisms (the constant attack on his drooping long hair, the way he seemed to accordion rather than sit down, the limp-wrists) were never overdone but felt entirely natural, and his familiarity with the Tin Pan Alley idiom was obvious. Edwin Wright did his Brooklyn accent consistently, and his portrayal of the arrogant but out-of-his-depth Mickey came closest of all three players to evoking any sort of concern. UNITEC drama student James Jennings was the eye candy for the show, in the small role of bellhop and in the trio of male dancers (the other two being Wright and Barrett) in the "encore" number at show's end. He's a good little dancer, too. Direction by Colin McColl was meticulous and detailed, and John Parker's marvellous set, lit ravishingly by Tony Rabbitt, vied with the actors for stardom. Rachael Walker has costumed the play with great attention to detail, even including the famed sequined pants-suit made for Garland's role in the film Valley of the Dolls from which she was fired in 1967 and replaced by Susan Hayward. Vicky Haughton's choreography is crucial to the play, both for Ellie Smith and for the guys at the end. She has helped recreate Garland's pony-like pacings from one side of the stage to the other, pouring out her heart in song while seeming to need to take sole possession of the stage. End of the Rainbow continues at Auckland SkyCity Theatre until 2 December 2007. Book at the Auckland Theatre Company website linked below. Larry Jenkins - 10th November 2007    
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