By Greg Stepanich
Something there is in the American character that loves its tragic heroes and heroines, and show business provides several examples of entertainers whose awful life stories have almost obliterated their achievements.
Judy Garland, who died in 1969 at the age of 47, the victim of an accidental drug overdose, has become in the years since her death a touchstone of a classic film (The Wizard of Oz) and a patron saint of the LGBT community, among other things.
Finding the story of this singular American performer beneath those other hypes is part of the task William Randall Beard set himself when he wrote Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall, for the History Theatre of St. Paul, Minn., in 2005. The play came the following year to Manalapan, where it was presented by Lou Tyrrell’s Florida Stage.
Tyrrell has brought the piece back this year to his new endeavor, the Theatre at Arts Garage in Delray Beach, where it opened July 19 and is running through Aug. 11.
“We’re trying to present the human being beneath the icon. The piece is so beautifully written by Randy Beard to clearly illuminate Judy’s life, and her struggles with an industry that celebrated her to be sure, but exploited her just as much. And I think that’s well-conveyed in the play,” said Tyrrell, artistic director of the Theatre at Arts Garage. “And it shows how an enormous talent shone through all of the challenges of her life, and how unfortunate it was that she wasn’t able to have the support without all of the damage that came along with that exploitation.”
The play is built around Garland’s Carnegie Hall comeback concert in 1961, which spawned a hugely successful recording that won her a Grammy Award. Beard also takes a look at Garland’s early life, from her days as vaudevillian Frances Gumm to her teenage years in Hollywood. The central role of Garland in the Carnegie Hall performance is acted and sung by Jody Briskey, who created the role. Norah Long plays the younger Judy, including the blue gingham-dressed Garland of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
Two actors play some of the important men in Garland’s often chaotic life — Clark Cruikshank is studio head Louis B. Mayer, second husband Sid Luft and other characters, and Peter Moore’s characters include Garland’s father, Frank Gumm, and third husband ,Vincente Minnelli. Peggy O’Connell takes the roles of crucial women in the Garland universe, including Garland’s mother, Ethel Gumm, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
Director Ron Peluso has staged the play for the unique confines of the Arts Garage, setting it up cabaret-style with characters in the play occupying tables next to patrons.
“We’ve been able to reconceive it as an Arts Garage experience … The play takes place within the audience structure,” Tyrrell said. “We use the stage for most of her Carnegie Hall songs, but most of the play is played out in and amongst the audience. It’s really exciting.”
Beyond the Rainbow features 25 songs, most of them classics of the Great American Songbook: Stormy Weather, The Man That Got Away, The Trolley Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, That’s Entertainment. It closes with her signature song, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s indelible Over the Rainbow. A four-piece band led by pianist Jimmy Martin provides the music.
The show is a “celebration of Judy Garland,” Tyrrell said, a look at an artistic life whose joys and pains were shared with her audiences as much as her performances.
“Much like our best blues singers, she left it all on the stage,” he said, referencing Bessie Smith in particular. “She didn’t know how to sing otherwise, and when you hear the songs in this play through the lens of her personal struggle, you realize how and why she sang as emotionally as she did, and why we responded so viscerally to her talent because of that.”
Beyond the Rainbow runs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30-$40. Call 450-6357 or visit www.artsgarage.org.
Also this month: Clive Cholerton continues his concert presentations of musicals at Palm Beach Dramaworks, which last month featured Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha. From Aug. 7-18, Dramaworks will present a concert version of Company, the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical that helped cement the composer’s reputation as a wry observer of the social scene who could write equally compelling lyrics and music.
The score is one of Sondheim’s most admired, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, for songs such as Being Alive, Side by Side by Side, You Could Drive a Person Crazy and The Ladies Who Lunch. It’s the story of a bachelor named Bobby (“Bobby is my hobby and I’m giving it up,” as one of the lines goes), a commitment-phobe who observes his married friends as he tries to come to a decision about his way forward.
Shows in the Musical Theatre Masters series are presented at full length, with reduced staging and instrumental accompaniment. Tickets are $35. Call 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Music: Fort Lauderdale’s Symphony of the Americas presents a Summerfest series of concerts each year, mostly with performances in Broward County. But one of the last programs of the festival takes place Aug. 3 at the Crest Theatre at the Delray Beach Center for the Arts.
Joined this year by I Musici Estensi, a Milanese chamber ensemble, the orchestra is presenting a wide variety of short works, including the prelude to Verdi’s opera La Traviata, Purcell’s Fairy Queen suite, a fugata by Astor Piazzolla, Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, a concerto by the Baroque Italian composer Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco and the finale of the Dvořák Violin Concerto.
Also on the program, set for 7 p.m. at the Crest, are two premieres by contemporary Italian composers: Lorenzo Turchi-Floris’ Suite for String Orchestra, and Guido Galterio’s Remembering Naples. Tickets are $25 and $40 for VIP tickets, which includes a reception with the musicians after the concert. For more information, call the Crest at 243-7922, ext. 1.
Meanwhile, the Boca Raton Symphonia, which has changed its name to The Symphonia, wraps up the city of Boca Raton’s free summer concert series at Mizner Park on Aug. 11 with a concert called From Bach to Bernstein. Led by Florida Atlantic University director of bands Kyle Prescott, the concert will include the Italian Symphony (No. 4 in A, Op. 90) of Felix Mendelssohn, the overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, some of the Brahms Hungarian Dances, and lighter pops selections, Prescott said. The concert begins at 6 p.m. at the Mizner Park Amphitheatre. For more information, call 544-8600.
Later in the month, also in Delray but a couple blocks south on Swinton Avenue, the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s own Baroque ensemble, Camerata del Re, presents a program called The Old and New, in which Baroque instruments will be heard in music of that period and contemporary works. The concert is at 3 p.m. Aug. 25, and tickets are $15-$20. Call 278-6003 for more information.
Art: The summer months, for many businesses, are the months in which budgets are stretched by employing intern labor. It’s a mutually beneficial process, and at the Norton Museum of Art, the interns are permitted to curate an exhibition while working there.
The intern exhibition, which opens this month and runs through Oct. 17, is called Little Boxes: Vernacular Architecture from the Collection, and features artists’ looks at the kinds of dwellings people have created. Artists such as Ansel Adams and Yinka Shonibare are seen in the exhibit, which includes mixed-media installations, paintings and photographs.
The four interns this summer are Karly Etz, a Denison University graduate who is pursuing a master’s in art history at Penn State; Luna Goldberg, a rising junior studying visual art at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.; Eli Heller, a rising senior at the University of California, Irvine, studying art history and literary journalism; and Laura Hildenbrandt, a University of Florida graduate who will be working on a master’s in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
For information, call 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.