My lifelong passion and involvement in the performing arts is due, in part, to my admiration of Judy Garland and appreciation for her rare talent. It started when I first heard “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall,” a live recording of her concert at Carnegie Hall in NYC, on Sunday April 23, 1961. It was billed as “the greatest night in show business history.” That description came as a result of the energy that was present that fabled night. Certainly not of that magnitude but there was, perhaps, a similar energy in the air Friday in the Studio Theatre at the Carmel’s Center for The Performing Arts. The feeling of excitement present was obvious as the audience sat waiting for the curtain to go up at the opening of “Beyond The Rainbow,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana. By the end of the show, the anticipation that I and others felt was more than rewarded, during a evening that can only be described as spectacular, if not unforgettable.
My lofty estimation of the production is due to the unparalleled efforts of ATI co-founder Don Farrell who consummately directed Anjali Rooney, Annie Yokom and Katy Gentry who all brilliantly play Garland at three different periods of her life. Also in the cast is an ensemble of supremely talented character actors who each play multiple roles. They are Grace Sell, David Ruark and Roger Ortman.
“Beyond The Rainbow” was written by William Randall Beard, and was created in collaboration with Ron Peluso with musical arrangements by David Lohman. The musical memory play details Garland’s up and down career from vaudeville to movies and stage shows. It also covers the loss of her beloved father, her relationship with her domineering stage mother, addiction to drugs and alcohol, her struggles with her weight and her two failed marriages. The story is told through brief vignettes illustrating Garland’s life and many of Garland’s most famous songs. Among the greates of the American Songbook they include “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart,” “The Trolley Song,” “Who Cares (As Long As You Care For Me),” “Get Happy,” “For Me And My Gal,” “Stormy Weather,” “San Francisco,” and, of course, “Over The Rainbow.”
Garland was billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” For an actor to play her, it’s a pretty tall order, but for three performers to portray her convincingly in the same production would seem an impossibility. However, I am pleased to report that ATI magnificently pulled if off by casting Rooney, Yokom and Gentry, all three of whom were thoroughly believable and with whom I deeply connected.
Rooney, who is one of the most natural child actors I have ever seen, beautifully captured young Judy’s sweetness, sincerity and exuberance, turning in a performance that was thoroughly appealing.
Yokom, who played the teen age and adult Judy, showed why she won the 2010 Songbook Academy Vocal Competition, turning in a vocal and dramatic performance that revealed she had clearly done her research. She had obviously studied Garland’s distinctive vocal qualities and physical mannerisms. Capturing Garland’s very essence, Yokom, who possesses her own powerful stage presence, also managed to convey the legendary entertainer’s charisma as well. Showing star quality, Yokom may well be one of Broadway’s next big attractions. She is a major talent and one to be reckoned with.
Gentry, who bears the brunt of the show’s vocal content, and serves as the script’s keystone device, played 39-year old Judy, performing at her triumphant Carnegie Hall and she did so with astonishing power, commitment and discipline. It was abundantly clear that Gentry, like Yokom, had also done her due diligence as she mimicked Garland’s quirks, movement, vocal idiosyncrasies and tricks. Most importantly, Gentry successfully managed to impart Garland’s vulnerability in a performance that was near flawless for both its emotional and artistic quality.
Deserving of plaudits as well, are Sells who played Judy’s overbearing mother Ethel Gumm, divisive Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and others; Popular Indy actor David Ruark for his stellar turns as Judy’s gentle father Frank Gumm, her first husband and renowned director Vincente Minnelli and other assorted characters; and Roger Ortman who excelled a at bringing Judy’s boorish, abusive second husband Sid Luft and tyrannical MGM head Louis Mayer, to life.
Leading the show’s superb band was music director John Bronston on piano, Greg Gegogeine on bass, Steve Stickler on woodwinds and Greg Wolff on percussion.
The show’s first rate production values and polish are due to the contributions of scenic designer P. Bernard Killian well-devised set; Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s pitch-perfect period costumes; Ben Dobler’s concert-quality sound design; Erin Meyer’s evocative lighting design; and Daniel Klinger’s always effectual wig/makeup design.
Although I seen all of Judy Garland’s movies, viewed lots of her television appearances and several documentaries of her life, listened to numerous recordings and read many books about her, I don’ t presume to call myself an authority. But there is no question that I am a voracious fan. For those who have the same affinity for Garland’s body of work as I do, “Beyond The Rainbow” will prove to be a thoroughly satisfying experience. As for those who know very little about her or wish to discover why Garland is such a show business deity, there is no better introduction than this Actors Theatre of Indiana triumph.
“Beyond The Rainbow ” performances are tonight at 7:30 p.m and Sunday at 2 p.m. The run continues through May 14. Single ticket prices for “Beyond The Rainbow” are $43 for adults, and $37 for seniors, $20 for students (with valid student I.D.). Wednesday evening performances are $25 for all adults. Tickets can be purchased online at atistage.org or through the Center For The Performing Arts box office by calling (317) 843-3800.