Judy!, Arts Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Last year, Southwark Playhouse played host to Through the Mill, a loving warts-and-all tribute to the life of Judy Garland told through re-creations of her life at three crucial points.

There are few Fringe productions for which a transfer to a larger, more central venue has seemed more appropriate. Writer/director Ray Rackham’s character study, first developed at the London Theatre Workshop, has huge commercial appeal, the perennial interest in Judy Garland barely fading since her death in 1969 aged just 47.

It also has a depth of feeling, investigating the causes of the stage fright that exacerbated Garland’s dependency on drink and drugs by juxtaposing them with young Frances Gumm’s struggles as the MGM studio turned her into ‘Judy’.

And that struggle is, to an extent, reflected here. As Frances becomes Judy, Through the Mill has become Judy! for ease of marketing purposes. In life, as in Rackham’s play, the ‘business’ end of show business imposes its own requirements.

Thankfully, little else has changed, Rackham bringing the cast with him from the Playhouse production. Central to the production is, of course, the casting of Judy herself; or, to be more accurate, herselves, with three actresses sharing the central role.

As the older Judy, struggling to make the weekly Judy Garland Show for CBS, Helen Sheals reprises the role of a lifetime. A fragile, birdlike creature who has been stretched to breaking point by various trials in life, Sheals’ Judy is pinpoint accurate in tone, posture and in a succession of exemplary vocal performances.

She benefits from a fine supporting performance by Carmella Brown as her dresser, Judith, who comes to bloom into a confident woman under Garland’s mentorship – a personification of the transformative power of true celebrity.

She is matched by Lucy Penrose, who plays the teenage Judy, transforming over the course of the production from a young girl with a remarkably adult voice to an actress and singer who is aware of her talent and how to use it, but who has seen her self-respect ground into the dust by a studio system, and an oppressive mother, who did their best to crush any sense of independent thought.

And between them stands Belinda Wollaston as the Judy who is preparing, in 1951, for what would be a record-breaking engagement at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. Initially, compared to the more nuanced deliveries of Penrose and Sheals, Wollaston’s Judy comes across as more of a caricature.

But through her gradual softening to her pugilistic manager (and, eventually, third husband) Sid Luft (Harry Anton) and several duets with either of her alter egos, Wollaston solidifies the progression of Garland’s performance persona. Occasional movements in synchrony are haunting, as if the older Judy is channelling her younger self, once again finding her true voice even as her offstage life is being dictated by others, whether they come in the form of businessmen or pill bottles.

Rackham fills the large stage of the Arts with more space for the impressive band of actor-musicians that bring Garland’s four decades of stardom to beautiful life.

Otherwise, little has changed – most notably the stretches of business talk in Act I which cause even the most adoring of Garland fans to shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.

As in the Playhouse production, though, the pace picks up notably and considerably in Act II, and when the trio of Judys finally join together for the finale (what else but ‘Over the Rainbow’) their portrait of a damaged, vulnerable woman who only ever really found herself on stage is as majestic as it has ever been.

The new title may be more marketable than Through the Mill’s was. At the same time, by concentrating on the showbiz persona at the expense of the complexities of the damaged young woman underneath, Judy! is the sort of title that Ethel Gumm or Louis B Mayer might have come up with. And in that regard, for this skilful, moving production, it is heartbreakingly appropriate.

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