Christen O'Leary plays Judy Garland.  Credit Caroline Russo Media

Christen O’Leary plays Judy Garland.
Credit Caroline Russo Media



                 Judy Packs a Punch. 

End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. Stars Christen O’Leary, Hayden Spencer, Anthony Standish. Directed by David Bell. Queensland Theatre Company. Playhouse Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre until March 24

 The memory of a late afternoon, trapped in a stormy traffic gridlock on the Gold Coast Highway as tears trickled down my face in line with the droplets on the window screen still raises a bitter-sweet smile.

My eyes were full of tears as I became aware of the women driver to my right appearing to optimistically mouth the words, ‘it’ll be  alright’, in the shape of a shining smiley vision.

Her face shone like a rainbow as I smiled back, and gave her the thumbs up, because a rainbow was haunting my mind, along with memories of growing-up in the UK.

She’s got it wrong, I wasn’t crying because I thought we’d all be swept away in one of the worst rain storms I’d experienced on the highway, but rather because Judy Garland’s plaintiff plea for a better, more beautiful world, was playing on the radio.

Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow was Mother’s favourite song and the only one which has ever been allowed to make my body tremble and my face melt into a soggy emotional mess.

The diva, whose wit could be as sharp and cutting as a musketeers’ rapier, took the song seriously as did many from my mum’s generation who lived in the shadow of the world war abyss.

These men and women, living in London through World War II, had a nightly date with the metallic birds of death as the blitzkrieg pummeled the capital – and elsewhere – and often turned to music to nurse their shredded nerves.

They sang songs such as We’ll Meet Again and embraced lyrics along the lines They’ll Be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover Tomorrow Just You Wait and See.

Garland’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow, recorded for the 1939 children’s fantasy The Wizard of Oz, based  on L. Frank Baum’s classic novel, fitted neatly into the mould as once again blue birds were brought into the frame.

However, the singer, who was 16 when she was cast as Dorothy, brought something more intense, more personal, to the song which resonated with millions.

I doubted whether back in 1939, or through the 1940s, that many outside of Hollywood circles knew the full story – that would come later – but pain, suffering and emotional torment has its own special language.

It also helped that Garland, as Fred Astaire once noted, was the greatest entertainer who ever lived, according to many of the generation who shared her place in time.

Now English playwright, Peter Quilter, has recreated Judy Garland’s human story played out in the final chapter of her life in End of the Rainbow.

The show comes  packaged with 12 of her best known songs including the Man Who Got Away, Get Happy, The Trolley Song, and, of course, Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

The production has been more than eight years in development, starting in England as a more general drama about the rise and fall of a star before, ironically, having a world premiere in its new form in Sydney, and finally heading to Broadway.

End of the Rainbow went to the Great White Way last year, but has finally come to Brisbane courtesy of The Queensland Theatre Company’s new striking Queensland premiere.

The show stars Christen O’Leary as Garland and features Hayden Spencer in the role of her pianist, Anthony, and Anthony Standish as her last lover and final husband Mickey Deans. All under the direction of David Bell.

O’Leary’s husband, Andrew McNaughton, is music director in charge of the six-piece band which gives the singer a musical trampoline.

Quilter has opted to tell Garland’s story through events, which took place the year before the star died, that include heated, and sometimes passionate, sessions at London’s Ritz Hotel and a five-week season at The Talk of the Town cabaret showroom.

O’Leary, whose last QTC outings was in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Bombshells, gives a blockbuster, show stopping, performance as well as a very human portrait of the star who got away.

Thanks to being weaned on pills by her driven mum, Ethel Gumm, and groomed for exploitation by devilish movie moguls, such as Louis B. Mayer, Garland was already damaged goods when she left MGM at the beginning of the 1950s.

The 1950s and ‘60s were spent in a torturous – and physically abusive – never ending emotional bungee jump which bounced the star between a manic heaven and a dark and wretched personal existence in the caves of hell.

Garland, and the men in her life, seemed to conspire to destroy both the woman, and her talent, and Quilter’s play takes us there in a poignant mix of pain, suffering and humor with the songs scattered like so many cherries on a tarnished cake.

End of the Rainbow is being hailed as one of the smash hit shows of the 2013 season and is fast becoming a critical and audience favourite.

For further reading I’d recommend Gerald Clake’s 2000 Garland biography Get Happy.

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