With a biographical retrospective, the problem faced by its storyteller is always the same: How do you condense a person's entire life — or a large chunk of it — into roughly two hours?
The task is gargantuan, and it's common to choose seminal events from subjects' lives to have them reflect on what brought them there.
In "Beyond the Rainbow" at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, that moment is Judy Garland's famous 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall. The concert established a comeback for the woman Fred Astaire once called "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," and was a commercial and critical triumph.
The show looks back at Garland's tragic life and career, from her early days singing on the vaudeville circuit through "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Star Is Born."
As the world-weary Garland at Carnegie Hall, Grey Garrett sounds incredibly similar to the performer in her later career. While she belts out one song after another, the audience learns of Garland's pain, insecurity and substance abuse. Garrett has Garland's every mannerism down, and — with her sequined top from costume designer Maura Lynch Cravey — appears just as Garland did on the night of the concert.
But the dramatic bulk of the show rests on the shoulders of Grace Mincks, who gives a spellbinding performance as Garland in flashback. While her character deals with the blows of stardom, the high-school-aged actress deftly navigates Garland's troubled soul. Mincks seems to have the chops of a much more experienced actress.
At times, Mincks and Garrett duet. It's particularly moving in such moments as when they sing "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" over the radio to their dying father. The two are kept in time by Paul Deiss' able orchestra, and director Tom Width's bare set design allows it to serve as multiple locations.
Frank Creasy and Richard Koch are impressive if only for the number of quick costume changes they undergo throughout the show. They portray at least a dozen and a half characters between them, including Mickey Rooney, Vincente Minelli, Bob Hope, Gene Kelly and Louis B. Mayer. Lisa Kotula pops in from time to time as Garland's oppressive mother, and Vicki McLeod rounds out the cast, in a number of roles.
While "The Wizard of Oz" may be the work Garland's most famous for, this production might be more aptly described by the title of another one of her films: "A Star Is Born." S
"Beyond the Rainbow" plays through June 7 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway. For information call 748-5203 or visit swiftcreekmill.com.