In the opening scene of Farmer’s Alley’s “Beyond the Rainbow: The Judy Garland Musical,” a dead ringer for the icon — ostensibly backstage before her 1961 concert performance at Carnegie Hall — wrings her hands, powders her nose, and anxiously pops pills, washing them down with a martini.
When she takes the stage, she flashes the toothy smile and wildly animated eyes, and sings “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” with all the vocal tics and note-bending familiar to anyone who’s ever seen or heard Judy Garland perform.
Jody Briskey’s performance of Judy Garland (a role she originated in the St. Paul Minnesota History Theatre premier of the show and has reprised around the country) is beyond impersonation and nothing at all like the kind of campy caricature of the gay icon often performed exquisitely in drag shows. This homage is something else entirely. It is as if she is channeling Garland and all the soulful pain and suffering that created her.
The show is a memory play with music structured around the through-line of that Carnegie Hall performance during which scenes from Garland’s life unfurl downstage chronologically, from the age of 4 on, often in ironic contrast to the songs the oldest, wisest Garland performs.
Director Kathy Mulay’s vision for this tale is rich and multilayered. She cast three other actors to portray Garland as a young child (Taegan Rademacher), a pre-teen (Carly Koch), and a young woman (Annie Yokom), to provide the details of Garland’s tortured life haunted by the very real demons who created her.
Those demons include her mother and a famous critic (Sandra Davis); as well as MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Atis Kleinbergs) — and the men who betrayed and abandoned her, including her father (Joey Urreta), husband Vicente Minelli (Jeremy Koch), and third husband Sid Luft (Trevor Stefanick).
Every local performer undoubtedly rises to Briskey’s level of professionalism with exquisitely nuanced performances to create a moving experience for die-hard Judy Garland fans as well as those who just love musicals and appreciate biographical tragedies. Also of the highest quality are the musical direction (Jeremy Ramey) and orchestra, as well as the design elements, particularly the lighting (Lanford J. Potts) and projected photographic images (Roger W. Burleigh) on which the extraordinary costumes (Kathy Mulay) are largely based.
“Now there’s nobody on my side,” is an utterance Garland repeats at several moments over the course of the play — when her father dies, when a husband leaves — symbolizing the destructive patterns that repeat, and their devastating effect on her psyche.
Also incredibly damaging are the terrible voices she heard as a girl and then repeated on a loop in her head throughout her life, denigrating her looks and likability. That coupled with a prescription drug habit formed in childhood thanks to her mother as well as alcohol abuse round out the destruction that led to an early death.
At several moments, the three actors who portray the bulk of Garland’s life confer with one another in an attempt to make sense of the senseless abuse she creates and endures. She admits, “No one can turn you into a victim better than you,” and that that’s the story of her life. “My history is in my songs,” she also declares, as well as, “The only time I’ve felt love is from my audience.”
And yet her star power and incredible talent brought her fame and fortune, provided a meal ticket for everyone she loved, and brought joy and entertainment to millions.
It’s a beautiful, tragic, complex story of an extraordinary woman who suffered to her core. Perhaps most tragically, it still resonates deeply today; but in the most beautiful of ways in this excellent production.
Beyond the Rainbow
Farmers Alley Theatre
Sep. 28-Oct. 14