The title of Miguel Montalvo’s one-man show “Truly, Truly, Truly Garland” spells out Montalvo’s intention: to create an honest, freshly conceived portrait of Judy Garland’s troubled, lonely psyche. He attempts to do this by utilizing her own words culled from direct quotes, interviews and solo underground recordings. Material is unremittingly morbid and painful, particularly since the production is all spoken and features no Garland music to lighten it up. Her life was tragic, but she handled it with charm and wit, qualities that rarely surface in this melodramatic treatment.
From the beginning, the carefully researched facts fail to capture Garland’s essence as an artist. Montalvo lets us know she can’t read music, without emphasizing that most of the great artists were able to easily transcend technical limitations and sing superbly by relying on their incomparable musical ears and instinct.
Sid Luft, the entrepreneurial third husband who engineered her comeback after she was fired by MGM, is referred to as “an animal, a blackmailer, a sadist,” all of which may have represented her perceptions during periods of marital stress. But Luft also contributed powerfully to her resurgence in “A Star Is Born” and subsequent concert career. The picture is one-sided.
Throughout, the star is shown as either angry or self-pitying. When she tears apart columnist Sheilah Graham as a “fat, redheaded English idiot,” the line has rage without Garland’s corrosive humor.
Though she defines herself as a loving mother, we get no sense of her children as individuals or her specific emotional connections with them. Nowhere are we told that she viewed Liza as a serious rival, an attitude that shocked Liza when they appeared together, or felt that Lorna was more beautiful and more likely to succeed.
A biographer is necessarily selective in his choice of material, but it’s impossible to present “truly truly Garland” if key figures in her life are glossed over: overbearing, vicious stage mother Ethel Gumm; director-husband Vincente Minnelli, who helped her to fully realize her adult creative genius in “Meet Me in St. Louis”; controlling studio boss Louis B. Mayer; beloved co-star Mickey Rooney. No mention is made of her heartbreak at losing the actress Oscar for “A Star Is Born,” the defeat that permanently reinforced her feeling that Hollywood was against her.
Numerous fart references are amusing at first, then overdone. It begins to seem as though these jokes are all the humor Montalvo can mine from his subject. What also minimizes the show’s comedy is his tendency to underplay. In an effort to avoid artificial flamboyance, his delivery is too muted, and potentially funny lines lose their bite and turn maudlin.
Montalvo’s gestures and vocal approach are approximate demonstrations of Garland. But he omits small, telling, idiosyncratic touches that would have brought her totally alive. Occasionally, the actor catches Garland’s vulnerability, or points up her strength with such dialogue as “I have the tenacity of a preying mantis.”
What we never feel is the joy she experienced as entertainer, the sheer love of singing that balanced the bitterness and moved her to cry out to adoring audiences, “I’ll stay all night if you want me.”