Garland story is heartbreaker

Bio-drama on stage at Arvada Center

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It’s Christmas, 1968. As ACT I begins, an indignant Judy Garland is complaining loudly to her manager/fiance, Mickey Deans. The elegant suite at London’s fanciest hotel isn’t big enough — and she needs a drink! And she still fantasizes that her “people” will unpack for her. Lights are up on “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quiller, a regional premiere at the Arvada Center.

Judy Garland, who was performing in vaudeville with her actor/parents as a toddler, was remembered for “The Wizard of Oz,” of course, but also, the Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Babes of Broadway,” “For Me and My Gal” … She had five husbands and three children, and left a legacy of beloved songs.

Garland (Tari Kelly), we soon learn, is short on money and Deans (Zachary Clark) is trying to keep her clear of the drink and drugs — part of her routine for years — so she can perform every night. She has a six-week contract at London’s Talk of the Town, which could make a dent in a 10-year accumulation of debt, Deans tells her. Ideally, it could be a comeback after some difficult years.

Kelly has the Garland voice and singing style nailed and is convincing in her intense portrayal of a legendary star in tatters — a woman who is utterly unable/unwilling to grasp her dire situation.

Her addictions had started when she was a teenage actress, given amphetamines for energy and weight control. Subsequent managers/husbands kept her supplied with pills to charge her up — and others to help her sleep, with ample amounts of booze also available. Kelly’s Judy is fragile, but can (usually) still belt out a song.

Her pianist/accompanist, Anthony, is played by Jonas Cohen, who lends a sympathetic counterpoint to Deans’ controlling manner.

Staging is especially effective as the back wall of the hotel suite fades and a bandstand comes into view. The stage becomes Talk of the Town, with a wide area for Garland’s performances, then fades back into a hotel suite almost magically. (Arvada’s scenic designer Brian Mallgrave is in top form.) Shannon McKinney’s lighting skills contribute strongly.

Described as a bio-drama with music, “End of the Rainbow” offers a moving closure on a sad story — just don’t arrive expecting an upbeat musical production.

If you go:

“End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter plays through April 13 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. Performances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Recommended for mature audiences, due to adult language and content dealing with drug use, alcoholism and sexuality. Tickets: 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.