Actress. Singer. Dancer. Child star. Addict. At least some of those words describe many entertainers who emerge from Hollywood, but there is one to whom all of them apply: Judy Garland, the small woman with an enormous voice who managed to survive the fall of the studio system only to fall prey to her own demons. Garland's life and career have provided fodder for many performers in the years since her death from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969 (most definitively by Judy Davis in the TV film My Life and Shadows), and even the average fan knows the details of her life story. As a result, Billy Van Zandt's The Property Known as Garland offers very little new about its subject.
But what the show does reveal is an astounding amount of acting depth never before displayed by its star, B-movie actress Adrienne Barbeau. Barbeau, who originated the role of Rizzo in the original Broadway cast of Grease and later starred in the TV series Maude, smartly opts not to mimic Garland directly. Instead, she captivates the audience with her savvy, incandescent interpretation of Garland, whose every intonation and mannerism have already been imitated many times to the point of parody.
Property takes place backstage during what was to be Garland's final performance, on March 25, 1969, at the Falkoner Centre in Copenhagen. With one hour to go before show time, her stagehand Ed (a game Kerby Joe Grubb) urges Garland to prepare for her performance. She then sends him on a wild goose chase for food. If he doesn't return with exactly what she wants, she says, she will not go on but will still get paid for showing up. Garland, of course, has no intention of performing.
With Ed gone, Garland begins conversing with (and occasionally implicating) the audience as she tells her life story. She talks about her mistreatment by MGM and her domineering mother, her marriages, and the many other celebrities whose careers ran parallel to her own, referring to them all as drunks. All the while, she constantly refills her glass of Blue Nun.
Garland is such a reliable narrator of her own life that the timing of the play makes little sense. She is always in control and lucid, so one never grasps the desperation or drug dependency that may have resulted in her death only months later. Van Zandt hasn't created a character but a history-spouting plot device.
It's Barbeau who picks up the pieces. Director Glenn Casale moves the 75-minute play along at fast clip, which makes for quite an emotional and physical workout for the petite actress. But she is more than up to the challenge. Barbeau proves to be quite a powerhouse, conveying a life's worth of anger, pathos, and self-deprecating humor. The show may rest on a lazy narrative conceit on Van Zandt's part—it makes it easy for Garland to simply recount the events of her life, cutting down on any dramatic effect. But Barbeau, like Garland herself, is a ball of energy, and she completely justifies every gesture and nuance in the performance.
Even though the cadences in her voice are more reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn than Garland, the point is the same. Garland was a product of the studio system, and even after she went out on her own, she could not escape the elocution and theatrical mannerisms she was trained at a young age to use. Barbeau successfully peels back the layers and makes Garland multidimensional, showing how the person and performer became forever entwined.
Several times throughout Property, excerpts of the real Garland singing are played, and the audience feels the pain and the passion in one of the greatest voices in recording history. But this production should have been able to portray the artist's ups and downs through its own resources. Drawing on the great Garland to add to the play's resonance may appear on the surface to be Van Zandt's tribute to the lady, but he's really just cheating.