For some the first and lasting impression of Judy Garland is the young girl skipping merrily down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz, but for others, the lasting memories are not as rosy.
It is the latter image that Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow vividly portrays. The acclaimed Broadway and West End productions starred Tracie Bennett, who went on to more acclaim in the Los Angeles production as the troubled actress. Just as critics and audiences adored Bennett, Atlantans have the opportunity to gush over Natasha Drena’s mesmerizing performance as Garland in the Actor’s Express production.
Set in London at the start of her sold-out, five-week concert series at The Talk of the Town, the drama follows Garland and her fiancée Mickey Deans (Tony Larkin) as they attempt to revive her career after bad press and a destructive spiral with pills and alcohol.
Drena doesn’t give a perfect interpretation of Garland, but she doesn’t have to. She takes to the stage without abandon. Her emotional, gut-wrenching take on the character will either leave you in tears or burdened with compassion for Garland after seeing the havoc that the abuse from studio executives and others brought to her. Vocally, she is just as powerful. The desperation, the longing in her vocals is hauntingly beautiful.
As Deans, a role which is the least developed of the principals, Larkin is at his best. He holds his own with the larger-than-life presence that Drena brings to the stage, and goes toe-to-toe with her in a few heated moments. But, the subtleness and compassion he gives to Deans makes the character believable and a worthy balance to Garland’s eccentricity.
The cast also includes Bill Newberry as Anthony, Garland’s pianist. He adores Garland and wants to ensure her happiness, and Newberry gives a solid performance in the role. In addition, John Lemley, Ben Silver and Jordan William Snead appear in cameos.
Just about everything clicks for this production. Leslie Taylor’s outstanding set design creates an intimate space for the show, albeit there are places where sight lines could be an issue. Even with that caveat, the set works well. It consists mostly of the elegant hotel suite framed inside a proscenium that transform into the club after a curtain rushes seamlessly across the stage. For added effect there are cocktail tables in front of the risers.
A brilliant, captivating play, End of the Rainbow, directed by Freddie Ashley, runs through June 15, 2014 at Actor’s Express. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show is a little over two hours with an intermission.
– Kenny Norton