If you’re going to do a play about Judy Garland, you’d better have a terrific Garland. “Beyond the Rainbow” has four of ’em.
History Theatre’s musical drama, subtitled “Garland at Carnegie Hall,” uses the Minnesota native’s 1961 concert stand as its framework, in which Garland is played by Jody Briskey.
As she sings, she’s haunted by her past, represented by actors who play Garland at three stages: childhood (Nicola Wahl), adolescence (Lillian Carlson) and young adulthood (Elena Glass, in an unfortunate wig that makes her look more like “Annie” than Judy).
The young Judys don’t know how this story turns out, so their optimism is poignant as they interact with five other performers, appearing as various Garland husbands, colleagues, bullies and enablers.
Under the fluid direction of Ron Peluso, it’s easy to see why Briskey won an Ivey Award when she appeared in this same show in 2011. She looks nothing like Garland but, by the end of the show, a combination of vocal power, phrasing, gestures and a jittery stage presence (Briskey’s mic game is particularly strong) make it seem like she’s an exact double.
And just when I was about to write in my notebook that Briskey supplied every aspect of Garland except the needy vulnerability she frequently exhibited on stage, as if the only thing holding her together was the sound of applause, Briskey nailed that quality, too.
Smartly, Briskey paces herself, not giving us full metal Judy right away. I missed Garland’s emotional nakedness during the bananas “Come Right or Come Shine,” which sounds like a bongo-driven musical breakdown on the record of these concerts. But Briskey was just saving it for a climactic “Over the Rainbow” that earns every bit of the simple declaration that precedes it, “I am still Judy Garland.”
Another spine-tingler is Carlson’s “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” her achy delivery of the upbeat song signaling that she’s being forced to perform immediately after learning her beloved father is dying. Carlson is new to the show but several previous cast members return to “Rainbow,” mostly in different roles. For instance, Norah Long, who previously played one of the Judys, now brings satisfying depth and glorious diction to Judy’s unfortunate mother.
Covering so much material forces playwright William Randall Beard to sandwich in some awkward dialogue but, like Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” his show is ingeniously constructed to work on at least two levels at once: the reality of the concert and the fantasy of the other characters who intrude into it.
Kate Sutton-Johnson’s handsome set also does a huge amount of the storytelling. Even before the actors appear, its curvy swooshes of spotlights and portion of an off-kilter proscenium establish that we’re somewhere between real life and a dream.
Wherever we are, “Beyond the Rainbow” finds Garland at one of the moments of triumph that were increasingly rare for her in the 1960s. And it was exactly where I wanted to be.