Laguna Playhouse’s ‘End of the Rainbow’ provides riveting look at Judy Garland’s last days

Judy Garland was arguably the greatest female singer of the 20th century and also among the most troubled, as evidenced by the riveting drama “End of the Rainbow” now onstage at the Laguna Playhouse.

Her loyal fans, and they are legion, have followed her career from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) through “A Star is Born” (1954) to her triumphant Carnegie Hall concert (1961). They may be less familiar with her final days, which are brought into uncomfortably sharp focus in the superb Laguna Beach production.

With the incandescent star power of the dynamic Angela Ingersoll — a ringer for the original in every respect — lighting the way, “End of the Rainbow” approaches rare theatrical brilliance under the fiercely sensitive direction of Michael Matthews.

The show traces the bitter end of a lustrous career as Garland unwillingly fulfills a concert date in London. Deep in debt, she’s prodded by her manager (and future husband, if only for her last three months) Mickey Deans to complete the engagement without assistance from her ever-present arsenal of booze and drugs.

Few actors have landed an impersonation of a famous figure more completely than Ingersoll, from the diminutive physique to the powerful vocal tones that seemingly can hold a note forever. She also has mastered the rushed tones and breaks in the star’s dialogue that switch subjects in mid-sentence.

Zachary Ford, Angela Ingersoll and Jon Steinhagen, from left, star in “End of the Rainbow” through Sept. 2 at the Laguna Playhouse.

Zachary Ford, Angela Ingersoll and Jon Steinhagen, from left, star in “End of the Rainbow” through Sept. 2 at the Laguna Playhouse. (Jason Niedle)

The tough but loving younger suitor Deans is rendered with a blatant honesty by Zachary Ford, who illustrates a commitment far beyond his financial interest. His physical moments with Ingersoll are robustly staged to the point of raising concern for the star’s safety.

Jon Steinhagen fills two roles in the show — musical director and Judy’s low-key piano accompanist, a typically reserved Brit whose devotion to the star rises to near-laughable levels. Cameo assignments are taken briskly by Nicholas Mongiardo Cooper.

It might be said that Ingersoll was born to play Garland. Certainly the physical and vocal characteristics are there, and if that weren’t enough, her publicity reveals that she once played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” And, of course, she closes her time in the show with Judy’s theme song, “Over the Rainbow,” sitting plaintively on the stage after her death has been revealed.

Fans of Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert will recognize the three-song medley (“You Made Me Love You,” “For Me and My Gal,” “The Trolley Song”) that Ingersoll offers in the London appearance. And for an encore following the curtain calls, she warbles “By Myself,” a key number from Garland’s final movie, “I Could Go On Singing.”

Stephen Gifford’s attractive setting encompasses both Garland’s hotel suite and performing venue, with Steinhagen’s mini-orchestra tucked into the rear of the huge stage. Bill Morey’s costumes are effective, bordering on outlandish, such as the glittering outfit Ingersoll dons for her concert late in the show.

“End of the Rainbow” not only is the best show on the Laguna stage this year, it also outclasses those of any other local theater. This one is worth fighting the arts festival traffic to experience.