Life isn’t always a yellow brick road.
That’s the thought that comes to mind as the real-life Dorothy Gale is revealed to us in John Meyer’s biographical (and autobiographical) play, “Heartbreaker: Two Months with Judy Garland.” In the play, Meyer allows the audience a glimpse through his eyes of the spasmodic personality of Garland as he knew her: near the end of her troubled life. Michael Bush directs the play in its world premiere production, as part of the Adirondack Theatre Festival.
John Meyer (played with an energetic jauntiness by Ian Lowe) is a struggling songwriter trying to make his tin-pan alley music come to life in bars and nightclubs — Judy Garland (played with a magnificent sense of tragedy by Christine Andreas) is a collapsed middle-aged star, abandoned by life, by luck and by love. Through a serendipitous meeting, the two end up living together.
Meyer soon finds himself evolving into Garland’s caretaker, lover, manager, therapist — a helpless observer, helplessly in love, who witnesses the terrible spinning imbalance between Garland’s beautiful talents and her manic, self-destructive behavior.
Lowe and Andreas together create the sets of double-themes in the story: lover and beloved, enabler and heartbreaker, young and old. Their chemistry is spot-on.
Kevin Adams’ lighting design illuminates the wide-ranged fluctuations between intense passion and ragamuffin self-pity in Garland’s life. Ardent reds, intimidating purples and moody blues and greens color the atmosphere with perfect psychological sensibility.
Dashing in and out of personalities with the flirtatious flip of a scarf, the casual loosening of a tie or even the mere adoption of an insincere businessman’s persona is character man Doug Trapp. The ability to maintain and become a single character completely — emotionally, psychologically, mentally — is a complex endeavor. Trapp’s ability to don and doff characters at a supersonic frequency is astounding. Whether exiting the stage as the inebriated original fan of Meyer’s music, and reentering as a staunch music business executive with a British inflection, or transforming into a nightmarish mannequin of a pharmacist, cheerfully doling out Garland’s Ritalin like it was Pez or M&Ms — Trapp has truly been able to become each character fully. The true delight lies in watching and wondering, when Trapp makes an exit, what zany personality is going to re-enter.
The constantly rotating cast of personalities is echoed by the circular repetitions of the set design, brainchild of James Noone. A black-and-white palette mimics the revolving centerpiece, a piano, a symbol of music as the gyrating center of Garland’s world. Overhead a glittering chandelier presents a cut-glass memorial, perhaps, to the fantasy of the Emerald City.
The intuitive costume designs of Karen Ann Ledger fit Andreas with the glamor of black satin; mink; and iridescent sequins, increasing the contrast between Garland’s dazzling public persona and private breakdowns. A tidy suit for Trapp serves as a canvas for his multi-character artistry, while a similar suit on Lowe remains stable, a reflection of his role as a supporting pillar to the unsteady architecture of Garland’s life.
Vivacious music by John Meyer (music direction by Donald Rebic) creates a jive with the choreography (Randy Skinner, with assistant choreographer Christine Reisner) of fast steps and handclaps that summon up more images of a 1950s cabaret than the British invasion years of the 1960s — when the play is actually set.
Andreas’ fabulous voice soars above the audience and fills the theater with a Judy Garland who is living out Meyer’s songs. Like any type of theater, musicals require the exchange of an actor’s persona for the personality of a character. But they also require vocal finesse; stamina; and projection. “Heartbreaker” offers an even greater challenge, as it requires Andreas to become Judy Garland — and to adopt not only her celebrated voice, but also the underlying motivations.
Part biographical sketch, part autobiography, part tragicomedy, part romance, part song-and-dance, “Heartbreaker” will have you riding the highs and lows, the love and despair — of living for two months with Judy Garland.
If you go
“Heartbreaker” by John Meyer runs through July 6. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and July 3, 5 and 6. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled on July 3. For tickets, which are $25 to $40, go to the Wood box office, call 874-0800 or purchase online at www.atfestival.org. Discount season packages are still available.