Judy Garland passed away in 1969, but throw a ruby-red slipper in any modern theatre and chances are you’ll hit someone who worships at her altar. Although I have never dared to question her majestic talent or her well-deserved place in the public conscious, it’s hard to find justification for yet another life biography. Why tell a story everyone already knows? My Judy Garland Life at the Nottingham Playhouse tries to offer something different, pitching itself as not only a memorial to her astounding gifts, but also as a study of how her story influences us today.
And different it certainly is, but after sitting through this odd 2-hour Frankenstein of a production, I couldn’t shake the thought that Ms. Garland deserved better.
Why tell a story everyone already knows?
MJGL tells the story (or at least it tries to) of Susie, a young Garland aficionado who dreams of life on the stage…or something; in truth, the narrative is so muddled that I can’t even admit to comprehending that much. Susie loves Garland, so Susie fantasizes interacting with Garland at various points in her life. Susie sings with Garland, Susie dances with Garland, Susie talks with Garland, all in an effort to “understand” Garland. Spoiler alert: Susie fails, as if she was going to get any farther than the 49,999 biographers before her.
The narrative is so muddled that I can’t even admit to comprehending that much
Part of the problem is Susie herself. While competently played by a restrained Fay Elvin, her character is drawn so flatly that it’s impossible to care whether she learns anything or not. Other than meekness, she has no real flaws; she’s just that stock “girl with a dream” Disney movies so love. There’s something in there about a university friend falling to his death at Oxford, but the play’s impressionistic structure is so willfully bizarre that it shatters any hope of of the audience grasping any kind of interior nuance. In trying to tell Susie’s story and Garland’s as parallels, the play fails to clearly define either.
In trying to tell Susie’s story and Garland’s as parallels, the play fails to clearly define either.
While Garland was a tormented soul, the appeal of her art relied on its simplicity. It was honest, it was sincere. With a tap of her shoe and a few sung notes, she enraptured her audience so fully that no secrets stood between them. She never needed structure; a song revealed more about her than any narrative ever could. With this in mind, why playwright Amanda Whittington decided to frame this story as a kind-of absurdist stream-of-conscious fever dream is beyond me. Instead of immersing the audience, it works overtime to alienate it. This scarecrow is stuffed tight with superficial asides designed to baffle, including: a Marx Brothers cameo, Freudian analysis, documentary-like video interviews with “real” people, an overlong (and nonsensical) scene with Liza Minnelli, and a backing band that functions as a cross between a fairy godmother and Jiminy Cricket.
Instead of immersing the audience, it works overtime to alienate it.
Despite this, I’d be lying if I said the production isn’t without merit. A gorgeous set functions as the perfect encapsulation of Garland’s luminous career, containing everything from a sparking-red piano to a yellow-brick road to dozens of projection screens cut to look like dressing room mirrors. Actress Sally Ann Triplett makes for an engaging Garland, even if at times she feels more like a caricature than a complex individual. And of course, where would a Garland production be without songs? The setlist is refreshingly surprising, going beyond just her established favorites.
Actress Sally Ann Triplett makes for an engaging Garland, even if at times she feels more like a caricature than a complex individual.
My Judy Garland Life’s clear highlight is the immortal Over the Rainbow, although not in the way one might expect. Sung by a drunken Garland while sitting at an English pub it masterfully flips the song’s context on its head, turning it from a wide-eyed hopeful ballad about following your dreams into a mournful dirge about dreams long past. It’s a virtuoso scene that nails precisely what this production wants to do–and it does so without projection screens or top hats or glittery jackets or even music. With just Garland, a bar, a song, a few English drunkards, the play says everything it needs to. I just wish this kind of effortless ingenuity was the rule rather the exception.
For more information and to book tickets, visit the playhouse website here.