Thursday, February 13, 2014

Judy Garland and me

Every time I’m in New Zealand, my friend ‘Richard the Music’ swoops down from the Cashmere Hills and carries me off to a splendid evening of dinner and theatre. Usually, it’s a NASDA show or the Court Theatre, and inevitably something musical. Pretty often, with him as musical director.

I haven’t been to the Court since last year’s highly enjoyable Grease – this year, the seasonal offering was a mashed-up Mikado which all my pals forbade me to go near, fearing for my health and sanity. But tonight, I got there. The End of the Rainbow isn’t a musical. It’s a play with incidental music and song fragments. Fine. But it’s based on an incident in the life of … Judy Garland. With Judy played by a woman.

Now, if I detest deconstructed G&S, I have to admit that Ms Garland is probably my showbusiness nadir of nono. I didn’t like the lady as a performer, didn’t like her voice, was exasperated by her well-exposed life story, and the dislike has only increased in the years since I saw her (but not her show) in London in 1969 via the multitude of impersonations. Richard gulped, but said ‘you must come, it’s so well done’. So I did, and it was.

Peter Quilter’s play itself is a bit of a mixture. Impersonation (necessarily) and imagination (more happily). The first act is rather wearisome. A series of tantrums and one-liners interspersed with chunks of Garland songs. I guess it aims for something like reality. The second act is excellent. You actually forget – thanks to a splendid imaginary character of the lady’s gay pianist, with dialogue touching and funny – that madame is supposed to be Garland. She’s just a screwed-up ridiculously vulnerable drug addict. It’s a play, not an impersonation any more. Except, of course, there are the songs. Exceptionally well done.

And that’s what made my night a successful night out. Well done. Eilish Moran as Judy was truly excellent. Yes, made up as a very convincing sosie of Garland, she had the problem of having to ‘impersonate’ like any drag queen, but she invested the role with a warmth and a naturalness, sufficient and not too much accent, and a very fine, free, unpretentious singing voice which freed her role from the taint of impersonation and towards a real acting performance. I actually liked her singing better than Garland’s: warm, incisive, unslick and totally uncamp. A first-class performance.

The other star of the night had the advantage of playing an imaginary character. Roy Snow as the brittle, but gentle and loving, pianist, Anthony, pulled all my sympathy and all my laughs. The part is extraordinarily well-written, and Snow got every inch of mileage out of the heartfelt but wisecracking script. I liked his performance hugely, and if I were awarding my famous Kurts in New Zealand, he would definitely be a nominee. Writer and actor came together in something really special.

Kevin Keys played the two-dimensional Mickey Dean, and Sam Mannering completed the team with a nice cameo as an interviewer called Ronald.

The direction (Yvonne Martin) of the piece was grand. The sort I like best. Direction that makes you forget the piece has been directed. The set was useful and not distracting: particularly effective when a super little jazz band was swung into the forefront in the theatre scenes… I wish they’d played in the interval!

Well, Richard was right. If you like the play, like Garland, it is a splendid night out.  The SRO house (400 seats) – mostly filled with grey-haired ladies with walking-sticks and a sprinkling of gay couples – certainly enjoyed themselves.
Me, I’d give the noisy act one 4/10 and the deeper act two 9/10, Miss Garland’s story still bores me to sleep, but I loved Ms Moran, loved Antony, loved the band, and, yes, I had a good night out too.

PS Note to Court Theatre General Manager. I know you’re only in ‘The Shed’ temporarily, but the steps and the seating are a nightmare for elderly, handicapped gentleman. No rails, no exterior aisles … and I came without my stick. More fool me. I blocked the traffic for minutes!

PPS a thought. I see New Zealand has Quilter-mania. His Florence Foster Jenkins play Glorious is heading for Dunedin!  Who next? Elizabeth Taylor? Carl Channing? Charles Pierce?

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