Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus

By Manning Harris

“It’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of—and never get there.”

These are probably the most heartbreaking words, spoken by Judy Garland, in “End of the Rainbow,” Actor’s Express’ production of Peter Quilter’s musical play based on the final year of the great entertainer’s life. The show runs through June 15.

But please don’t think that the evening is sad, lachrymose, or a downer. On the contrary, it’s a portrait of a vibrant woman who was a real life force, the greatest performer of her time, but whose “time was running low,” as she sang in one of her songs. And of course, the demons of pills and alcohol were nipping at her heels by this time, with increasing ferocity.

Essays and books have been written about Judy Garland, and we will not play armchair psychologist, except to say—there was no Betty Ford Clinic in 1968, when the play is set.

Instead, let’s plunge into a suite at London’s Ritz Hotel, where Garland (Natasha Drena, in an astonishing performance) and her fiancé Mickey Deans (Tony Larkin) have moved in, followed closely by Anthony (Bill Newberry), her more than devoted accompanist and confidant. Judy is in London for a series of performances at Talk of the Town, a well-known club.

To me there is always a fascination and mystery about great talent. Where does it come from? What is it that makes one voice sound pleasant, and another completely unforgettable? There’s a moment when Ms. Drena starts singing in the hotel suite, rather softly at first; but suddenly there’s electricity in the air and you sit up—Judy!

Then the scene switches to the night club and she’s singing “You Made Me Love You” or one of Judy’s standards. Then goose bumps really begin. Yes, I know it’s not really Judy Garland, and Ms. Drena doesn’t sound exactly like Garland (some may disagree). But the triumph of Ms. Drena’s expert performance is that it’s a tribute, not some ghastly, lunging caricature. She has the familiar gestures, the vocal intonations, but to me it’s more suggested than a flat out attempt at imitation. Yet—by some alchemy, she does look, walk, sing, and talk like Judy.

It’s a mesmerizing performance, and you must see it. I must also give kudos to director Freddie Ashley, who comments in program notes that as a lifelong fan of Garland, he wasn’t about to direct some lurid exploitation, and he’s been successful in that. One feels that he and Ms. Drena are on the same page here, and the results are lovely.

As Mickey, Garland’s soon to be fifth husband, Tony Larkin is dynamic and believable. This is no small thing, for it’s all too easy to cast Mickey as the villain, forcing Judy to perform, hiding her drugs—all for money. Mickey is smart, but he doesn’t have Garland’s wit, keen intelligence, and sophistication; but he is sober. You can form your own conclusions, but the scenes between Mickey and Judy are vibrant and riveting.

Liza Minnelli, Garland’s daughter, always talked about how funny “Mama” was. Well, here we see it—she’s a stitch and with plenty of salty language to boot.

Bill Newberry’s Anthony is very fine; in a way, he represents Garland’s many gay fans, and at times, his protectiveness verges on would-be ownership. But that is clearly a matter of interpretation.

John Lemley plays a radio announcer (which he is in real life) who interviews Garland in a very amusing scene. Ben Silver and Jordan-William Snead complete the excellent cast. Robert Strickland, a legendary Atlanta talent, is the music director; he’s wonderful.

But make no mistake: It’s Natasha Drena’s evening, and her renditions of many of Garland’s standards (“The Trolley Song,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Just in Time,” “The Man That Got Away,” and others) are the high point of the evening.

If I may end on a personal note, many years ago I saw Liza Minnelli in concert at Carnegie Hall. I had a box seat and looked straight down at the stage. I remembered that Judy’s most legendary concert was in that same hall in 1961. As I looked and listened to Liza, I could easily imagine her mother standing in that spot, years ago. More goose bumps.

See the Express’ “End of the Rainbow.” If you ever admired Judy Garland, you’ll have some goose bumps of your own.

For tickets and information, visit actorsexpress.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.