Angela Ingersoll was born to play Judy Garland. But the word “play” doesn’t come close to suggesting just what this petite, raven-haired actress with the astonishing voice (and a remarkable physical resemblance to Garland) does during the course of the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “End of the Rainbow,” Peter Quilter’s play-with-music that conjures the tragic, chaotic months that led up to Garland’s death in 1969, when, at the age of 47, she succumbed to a barbiturate overdose.

‘END THE RAINBOW’
Highly recommended
When: Through Dec. 9
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $45 – $51
Info: http://www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

Ingersoll’s tour de force performance is an act of breathtaking alchemy — a simultaneously sublime and chilling act of transformation. And it might well leave you believing you’ve encountered the ghost of the beloved film star who was one of the most distinctive interpreters of the Great American songbook, and whose brilliant career ran parallel to a lifelong battle with drugs and alcohol, and the hunger for the kind of love no audience could satisfy.

From the moment she strides into the London hotel room where she will be staying during a grueling five-week engagement at The Talk of the Town nightclub (formerly the Hippodrome), it is clear the Garland is emotionally unstable — capable of cursing a blue streak and mixing charm with manipulation, but also desperately needy, frightened and just one step away from total meltdown. It is early in 1969, and she is trying to make a comeback (and work her way out of debt) after a mostly disastrous tour to Australia several years earlier, and after being fired from the film, “Valley of the Dolls,” because of her failure to show up for rehearsals.

Jon Steinhagen and Angela Ingersoll in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of "End of the Rainbow." (Photo: ...)

Jon Steinhagen as Anthony Chapman and Angela Ingersoll as Judy Garland in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “End of the Rainbow.” (Photo: Kelsey Jorissen)

At her side is Mickey Deans (Kyle Hatley, who deftly walks the line between caretaker and enabler), the considerably younger nightclub manager who will become her fifth and final husband. And waiting to work with her again is the gay British piano accompanist she has known for years, Anthony Chapman (an ideal turn by pianist Jon Steinhagen, who also is the show’s music director).

Both men initially try to keep Garland away from the alcohol and pills that have plagued her since her teenage years in Hollywood, although Deans will ultimately try to save himself and keep her going by becoming her “supplier.”

Meanwhile, in one of the play’s most wrenching scenes — exquisitely played by Steinhagen and Ingersoll — Chapman, who is in many ways as lonely and hungry for love as the singer, offers her a safe haven, but one devoid of sex.

Along the way there are many opportunities for Ingersoll to sing the songs with which Garland is most closely associated, including “The Trolley Song,” “The Man That Got Away,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “By Myself.” Sometimes it is just a tantalizing snippet; at other times it is a full-out performance. In all cases it is perfectly placed, and invariably the effect is blistering, hypnotic and altogether shattering.

Ingersoll captures the timbre and phrasing of Garland’s heart-piercing contralto to uncanny effect, but she never gives you the feeling she is doing an “impression,” for she has crawled so far into Garland’s psyche, and captured so much of her edgy gesturing (just watch as she gets entangled in her microphone cord), her tempestuous soul and her hungry heart, that she has made both the anguish and swagger her own. And she makes you see how Garland’s interpretations of the songs came straight from life. A superb physical comedienne (she recently played Hedy LaRue in the Marriott Theatre production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and left indelible marks with roles in “The 39 Steps” and “The Game’s Afoot” at Drury Lane Theatre a few seasons back), Ingersoll also knows how to elicit laughs along with tears.

“End of the Rainbow” (which debuted in Australia in 2005, and has been seen in London, on Broadway and beyond), is superbly directed here by Porchlight’s artistic director, Michael Weber. It features Felipe Jorge in several roles, including an amusing turn as a BBC Radio interviewer who tries to hold things together with the erratic Garland. There also is a sensational onstage Talk of the Town band that includes Lindsay Williams, Gregory Strauss, Cara Hartz, Dan Kristan and Joe Pascarello.

Christopher Rhoton’s set easily shifts from traditional English hotel suite to nightclub glitter. And Bill Morey has recreated Garland’s signature sparkling costumes, which Ingersoll wears as if she were Garland’s clone. By the time you leave the theater you might well believe that is the case.

Angela Ingersoll stars as Judy Garland, with Kyle Hatley as her fiance, Mickey Deans in the Prochlight Music Theatre production of "End of the Rainbow." (Photo: Kelsey

Angela Ingersoll stars as Judy Garland, with Kyle Hatley as her fiance, Mickey Deans in the Prochlight Music Theatre production of “End of the Rainbow.” (Photo: Kelsey Jorissen)