Stage magic is a wonderful thing. And all of us realize it doesn't happen every time we go to the theater. To be truthful, it rarely happens. But when it does, it can curl your toes! Go see Carolyn Johnson as Judy Garland at Stages Rep in Peter Quilter's bio End of the Rainbow and witness pure stage prestidigitation. Your toes will never be the same.
A gifted actor, one of Houston's best to be sure, she's far from Garland's pixie look, although on screen Garland radiates such magnetism and sheer bravado we believe she'd easily take down King Kong if she had to. It's called “larger than life,” a cliché that's oh, so true.
Johnson has a larger frame, a longer face, a wider mouth, a more pronounced jaw. At first, not one's ideal casting for such an iconic personality that's branded into our consciousness. Garland is, was and forever shall be one of the sublime stars of musical Hollywood. Her personal, dysfunctional story of addiction, manic depression, multiple suicide attempts and just-plain-nuts stands at such opposition to her screen roles – Dorothy from Kansas, Esther Blogett in A Star is Born, Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, Ginger Grey in Girl Crazy – you wonder how many personas she did have. Did she even know by the end?
But if you think that extra-special, eerie Garland magic is untranslatable anymore, witness the transformation by Johnson. It is astonishing. She's playing Garland at the end of her life. Recently off drugs and alcohol, with new fiancé/manager in tow (H.R. Bradford), and her trusted gay pianist (L. Jay Meyer) called back into service after a disastrous concert tour in Australia, she's in London in 1968 for yet another comeback concert. Her hotel suite at the Ritz is radiantly conjured by set designer Kristina Marie Miller with claret drapery, stenciled wainscoting, gilded molding and shaded sconces. It is rich and warm, everything Garland no longer is.
It takes only a few minutes after Johnson enters to feel the magic. It's in her voice: that tremulous vibrato, that plummy accent, that salty speech. It's in her walk and mannerisms: that stage strut, those angled wrists, those leggy Garland gams that can arch around themselves when she sits. There are times – and we grow more conscious of countless others as the show progresses – when Christina Giannelli's lush lighting envelops her or strikes her obliquely when the perfect Garland apparition takes our breath away. Just how this is accomplished is stage magic of the highest order.
But the greatest trick of all is when Johnson sings. What a blast! If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Garland has been deified. Johnson captures everything of that inimitable voice that made Garland sound like no one on earth. It's that quaver that veers perilously out of control; that throaty roar that reverberates from deep inside; that untenable phrasing and sheer joy in singing and getting to the meat of the lyrics; it's that belt!
Along with husband Jim Johnson and their company, AccentHelp, Miss Johnson is also revered as an exceptional dialogue coach, and if any more proof of their company's proficiency and expertise is needed, listen to Johnson sing as Garland. Not only do you hear Garland in the flesh, you actually feel Garland's presence. Talk about eerie – 's wonderful.
Unfortunately, Johnson uses up all the stage magic, and there's none left to help Quilter's by-the-numbers pale, imitative play. Whatever you think you know about Judy's last unhappy days, all the incidents all here, neat and tidy like Post-it notes stuck to a classroom wall. There are no surprises. Her husband-to-be is smarmy and opportunistic, using love as a tool to get insider's info for his tell-all book; the gay friend is every gay geek fan Garland ever accrued; and Garland is a mess of contradictions, popping pills and eventually succumbing to demon rum to screw up her courage to go on. I half expected to hear: Sure, you're scared to go out there, but you've got to come back a star!
The only comic surprise in this soapy treatment is when desperate Garland pops pills she steals out of Anthony's briefcase, only to discover they're for his dog's mange. Rolling on the floor at the absurdity of her dead-end life, she gets her belly scratched.
Director Kenn McLaughlin seems to enjoy the musical stagings best of all, and who wouldn't when faced with this tepid, unconvincing melodrama. Beyond the window, the hotel view of London vanishes, those drapes morph into the show curtain, and we're onstage at Talk of the Town nightclub, big band behind her. These sequences – replete with Garland's signature rep: “The Trolley Song,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just in Time” – are filled with abundant joy, as musical director Steven Jones and his other four capable musicians swing like '60s hepcats.
The last number is the most poignant and deeply moving, “Over the Rainbow,” naturally, from The Wizard of Oz. Johnson, or should I say Garland, wears that iconic outfit we've grown accustomed to from her appearances on TV: man's untucked white shirt, collar turned up, tight black pants, her shoes off. She sits on the divan in front of the hotel window and simply sings her personal anthem. Nothing embodies the spirit of Judy Garland more than Arlen and Harburg's wistful, simple, glorious standard. It's performed pure and clean, like a benediction.
End of the Rainbow continues through April 10 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $23-$49.