“When you’re the daughter of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland, you’re not going to end up in real estate.” Somewhere Under the Rainbow is an utterly captivating biopic of Liza Minnelli, the daughter who grew up in the shadow — or as this play crucially spins it, the rainbow — of her mother’s fame and talent, but always certain of her own gift. Sharon Sexton is seemingly not just playing Liza Minnelli, but is her living embodiment, the cropped hair, gamine eyes and breathy, glamorous Garland-esque voice.
However, this is still a performance and what is winning about this deliciously short musical is its beguiling, ironic sense of self awareness. This is a show about putting on a show, and the guts it takes to do so. We witness Minnelli’s relentless desire and her undeterred ambition to get to the top. We are the audience Sexton’s Minnelli seeks to captivate, to woo and to transport into her other world of endless possibility, where, in one of her childhood reminiscences, you can ‘be’ anything you want to.
Set in her dressing room, she whizzes from character to character, pulling out all the emotional stops of Liza’s range and career hits as well as from Garland’s. Singing ‘Mein Herr’ from Cabaret she is Sally Bowles in her black tights and bowler hat. She’s then mournful and moving on ‘Losing My Mind’ (tears visible in the rows) and in ‘The Man That Got Away’, Judy Garland’s rueful and confessional story about the lost loves in her life, she’s strength brought back from the brink of misery. But we’re also participants of the performance being an act and a determination in itself, because we see the struggles and personal battles behind these amazing hits. The resulting intimacy between us and Sexton is magic.
Remarkably, this witty, snappy script has not been seen in London before its debut at the Landor Theatre. Writer and director, Cillian O’Donnachadha has an instinctive feel for his subject; threading the uncanny connections of Garland’s life story and her daughter’s through this play like colourful splashes of the rainbow. There are anecdotes (a disastrous joint performance) and slips of the tongue (that valium, those husbands). References to Minnelli’s dog ‘Ocho’ (with obvious sounds-like parallels) and the ruby slippers she straps on though inflicted with a throat infection, shows the hardship underlying the yellow brick road fairy tale that ran through both women’s lives. “My mother was never just happy, she was ecstatically happy”, Minnelli says. The thrills of performance were both a joy and curse that pervaded both lives.
As we walked over the bare dressing room stage to reach the exit, with its empty lifeless emblems of a set after the star has gone, the sense of the transformative power of an icon with massive, superhuman talent hit us. Whether it was Sexton’s or Minnelli’s or both, it doesn’t matter, the evening brought the house down in a first for this reviewer – a fringe theatre standing ovation.