The Florida Stage celebrates its 20th anniversary season with the East Coast premiere of Beyond The Rainbow by William Randall Beard. This show was not originally part of the theater's current season. The Florida Stage called upon director Ron Peluso to bring his locally successful show Beyond The Rainbow from Minneapolis/St.Paul to south Florida when it was determined that the show scheduled for this time slot, Ella: Off the Record, was in need of more time for development. (Ella: Off the Record has since been rescheduled to open in June of this year.) That the Florida Stage brought Beyond The Rainbow to south Florida is a stroke of luck for the theatre and theatergoers alike. Jody Briskey as Judy Garland gives one of the most exciting performances I have ever seen. Run to see this show before it closes!
The setting is April 23, 1961, when a 38-year-old Garland performed at Carnegie Hall in what the New York Times called "the concert of the century." Her Carnegie Hall appearance marked a huge comeback for the star. The live recording Judy at Carnegie Hall received five Grammy Awards and went Gold within a year.
As Judy Garland, Jody Briskey sings more than 25 songs, with arrangements by David Lohman, duplicating a scaled-down version of the concert originals. Woven into her concert performance are the specters of Garland's past, living on in her memory. Her late mother and father, husbands, friends, coworkers and critics, played by the other actors, dart in and out of her consciousness. It is no secret that Garland's troubled and tumultuous personal life, combined with her emotionally fragile nature, both made and destroyed her. Therefore, her memories torture her as much as they strengthen her as a person and a performer. In the words of the show's author, William Randall Beard: "There are times when the memories become too painful, when she is tormented by her demons. At those points, she grabs the microphone and uses the songs as a way to dispel them and regain control of her life." These are the finest moments in the show. And, in the words of Judy Garland herself: "The history of my life is in my songs."
Jody Briskey far surpasses any expectations in duplicating the sound, style and mannerisms of Judy Garland. Her delivery of song after song is astonishingly Judy in phrasing, vibrato, and every single portamento. As an actress she is also able to bring that magical emotional quality of Garland as well. The only thing missing from this production is a larger orchestra. The four-piece arrangements are well written representations of the originals, but not all of the instruments are played well. Miss Briskey's considerable talent deserves to be framed by a fuller, richer sound.
The part of young Judy is written so as to appear so emotionally needy and co-dependent as to be inherently headed for disaster. That may have been true. We may never know how much of her roller-coaster ride of a life was manipulated by her substance abuse issues. And those issues contributed greatly to her physical and mental health problems. Though difficultly written, the part is touchingly played by Norah Long with trembling lips and dewy eyes. There is one awkward moment in the show that needs to be cut. In the beginning, Miss Long briefly plays Judy at age 4 in a moment that is both ridiculous to view and superfluous to the script.
The supporting actors deftly maneuver playing multiple characters throughout the show. The acidic Hedda Hopper, played by Cathleen Fuller, was certainly a favorite to those audience members old enough to recall her famous broadcasts.
The set and costumes are simple and effective, the sound blessedly clear enough to hear every note! This show should not be missed.
Beyond the Rainbow was originally commissioned and developed by History Theatre, Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota, and produced by The Great American History Theatre in Spring of 2005. The Minnesota historical ties to the commission of this work are based on the fact that Judy Garland, neé Frances Gumm, was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Ron Peluso is Artistic Director of The Great American History Theatre and previously worked with the Florida Stage last season directing their production of Sisters of Swing. This production of Beyond The Rainbow is presented by the Florida Stage in conjunction with Executive Producers Northern Trust, and Kay and Jim Morrissey, and Co-Producers Gladys Greenbaum Meyers and Robin Ellen Meyers.
Beyond The Rainbow plays at the Florida Stage through April 23, 2006. The theater is located in Plaza del Mar, at 262 S. Ocean Blvd. in Manalapan. The Florida Stage is a professional theater, with extensive programs for young artists, hiring Equity and Non-Equity performers from across the United States. Tickets and other information may be obtained by calling the box office at (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837, or on line at www.floridastage.org.
* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Review by John Lariviere