Chicago Theatre Review
You Made Me Love You
End of the Rainbow – Porchlight Music Theatre
British playwright Peter Quilter’s much-accoladed biographical drama imagines the final weeks of Judy Garland’s life and career, as she spirals down a path toward self-destruction during a six-week engagement in 1969 at London’s Talk of the Town. Her attempt to overcome a rash of bad press, an addiction to drugs and alcohol and to desperately keep hold of the man poised to become her fifth husband is played out alternately within her lavish hotel suite and onstage. Quilter’s play with music debuted in 2005, at Australia’s Sydney Opera House. It transferred to London’s West End, winning four Olivier Awards, and then toured the UK, through 2011. The following year, this much-anticipated drama reached the Big Apple, opening to great acclaim. Since then, this popular play has been an international hit.
Set in a lavish hotel suite (beautifully designed by Christopher Rhoton), dominated by a baby grand housed within a windowed alcove, the set easily transforms into the plush performance venue where the singing legend gave her final concert. Judy Garland, played to perfection by Chicago musical theatre actress Angela Ingersoll, suddenly bursts into the room. This actress, who’s an absolute force of nature, sinks her teeth into this role from the start and never lets go until the end. Sharing the stage with the two men in her life, her handsome, young manager/fiancee, Mickey Deans, and Anthony, her long-time friend and accompanist, Ms. Ingersoll isn’t simply an actress playing a part. She is Judy Garland and this entire show belongs entirely to her.
Kyle Hatley (as her fiancee and manager, Mickey) and Jon Steinhagen (as her English accompanist, Anthony) both have their work cut out for them from the beginning. Playing against Ms. Ingersoll’s wall of unstoppable energy, the other actors are challenged by this diva’s performance. Mr. Steinhagen has one particularly fine moment, at the top of the second act, for which he’ll be remembered. Tenderly and empathetic, Anthony offers to help Ms. Garland apply her makeup for her upcoming performance. Calmly, he not only provides Judy with the right lipstick and eye shadow, but also a sympathetic ear and the love she craves. As the story advances, Mr. Hatley undergoes a subtle, but gradual metamorphosis, from Garland’s strong, caring lover into a steely, driven, no-nonsense business manager. Hatley forcefully shows he’ll stop at nothing to get the star back on track, and his performance is chilling, yet brutally honest.
Angela Ingersoll, who recently showcased her comic talents as sexy Hedy LaRue in the Marriott’s excellent “H2$,” is perfection in director Michael Weber’s fresh, forceful production. She completely inhabits this show business legend, whose private life became riddled with anxiety, loneliness and a desperate need for love. This is no easy task. Ms. Ingersoll throws herself into her portrayal with wild abandon, yet she’s in full control every step of the way. This actress has done her homework, too, and she understands exactly what made the singer tick. As a middle-aged Judy Garland her sheer stamina and drive is inspiring, but Ingersoll also reminds theatergoers of the vulnerable child star beneath, the kid who grew up on film backlots and was forced to perform. Later Garland confides that what frightens her most nowadays is not always being the entertainer that her fans expect. This admission makes her terror and dependency sad and understandable.
Ms. Ingersoll has mastered Judy Garland’s signature moves, posturing, speech pattern and vocal styling, as well. She’s even got her laugh down pat, which so frequently erupts out of nowhere. And lest audiences think this play is all heavy drama, there are many comic moments, sparked by the script’s dark humor and self-deprecating sarcasm.
Of course, no portrayal of Judy Garland’s life would be complete without her music. Angela Ingersoll is an accomplished songstress and she’s superbly mastered the diva’s identifiable way with a song. If there’s any doubt, listening to her inspired renditions of such classics as “The Trolley Song,” “The Man Who Got Away,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Get Happy,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and of course, “Over the Rainbow,” audiences will become convinced. Musically, Ms. Ingersoll is simply impeccable.
In addition to Michael Weber’s driving, yet sensitive direction, the production is also the work of many behind-the-scene artists, as well. The play is tempered by Jon Steinhagen’s excellent musical direction and piano accompaniment. He’s enhanced by a terrific five-piece combo that magically appears out of nowhere. Historical authenticity is provided by Ross Hoppe’s newsreel projections, while costume designer Bill Morey shows why he’s a multi Jeff Award-winner, with his array of authentic, elegant, glitzy 1960’s fashions.
But this show belongs entirely to Angela Ingersoll, from start to finish. Both director Michael Weber and musical director Jon Steinhagen understand this and support her performance with all their heart, soul and gentle guidance. Leaving this breathtaking theatrical experience, audiences will find themselves emotionally spent. Moved to tears, they may feel they’ve just been been transported back to 1968 and witnessed firsthand the sadly tragic final days of a true American legend.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 4-December 9 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-777-9884 or by going to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.