End of the Rainbow Review: Judy Garland’s Last Days
It is not until the very end of “End of the Rainbow,” after Judy Garland’s pianist tells us how she died from an overdose, that we feel free to be entertained: Tracie Bennett comes back from the dead to sing two more songs, one of them “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
Before that, it feels more appropriate to be appalled, or at least embarrassed. Yes, Bennett belts out a total of ten songs, all of them Judy Garland standards: “Get Happy,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You” “The Trolley Song,” “The Man That Got Away. But Peter Quilter’s British import of a play is not meant as a revue, and Tracie Bennett is not so much a singer as an actress. “End of the Rainbow” is a portrait of pathetic decline. It says something that the most memorable of the numbers before the end is “Come Rain or Come Shine,” sung at double or triple normal speed, because Judy is hopped up on Ritalin – which we’ve seen her desperately gobble down in the previous scene.
Garland, 46, is back in London in December, 1968 (six months before her death) for yet another comeback, staying at an elegant suite at the Ritz that she can no longer afford, while she performs a five-week gig with a five-piece ensemble at a nightclub called the Talk of the Town.
Accompanying her are Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), a former club owner who is her new manager and soon to be her fifth and final husband; and a gay pianist from Scotland named Anthony (Michael Cumpsty). The two represent the two kinds of men with whom she associated, or with whom she is most associated. Mickey Deans is the last in a long line of exploiters or enablers, although as seen here he is perhaps well-intentioned; he initially tries to keep her sober, but eventually gives in, so that she will perform and start paying off her debts. Anthony is a fictional character who represents her most devoted gay fans; he asks her at one point to retire in order to recover, and go off with him to a boring sane (and celibate) life in the countryside. Surely to create a semblance of dramatic tension, the playwright rather mechanically pits the two against one another. At one point, Mickey says to Anthony, “What is it with you people? The more she falls apart, the more you adore her.”
Judy Garland has been dead almost as long as she was alive, but there is clearly no statute of limitation on backstage dramas about self-destructive entertainers – see Monroe, Marilyn. “End of the Rainbow” follows the formula, with no apparent interest in widening our perceptions of the fallen star. There is no mention at all, for example, of Judy Garland’s three children, the youngest of whom was just 11 years old at the time. The script reminded me of both of Matthew Lombardo’s recent Broadway bombs, “High”, a bleak look at a hopeless addict, and “Looped,” which offered a by-the-numbers script about Tallulah Bankhead, although it at least had the benefit of her far cleverer zingers.
What distinguishes “End of the Rainbow” begins and ends with Tracie Bennett’s performance. Bennett is an undeniably Olympic athlete of dysfunction, exhibiting impressive stamina during the two-hour marathon of histrionics – cracking vulgar jokes, flirting and snapping at her callow fiancé, begging, boozing and belting. She’ll swallow anything, including pills she snatches from Anthony’s valise – which turn out to be for his sister’s dog, to cure its mange.
When she hears what she’s done, she starts acting like a puppy, going down on all fours, lifting her leg as if to pee.
It is undoubtedly a testament to her acting that she becomes unwatchable, as if we were unwitting and unwilling witnesses to a really talented friend’s personal deterioration.
That feeling continues when the back wall rises in William Dudley’s effective set, and the sad scenes in her sumptuous suite are replaced by the authentic-feeling (and accurately garbed) performances in the swanky nightclub.
Bennett doesn’t quite nail Garland’s quivering vulnerability; her performance comes off as too muscular to spark the protectiveness that the real Garland did in her audience. She also doesn’t have the voice. But one must give props to an actress able to so fully inhabit a beloved figure who competes only with Elvis as the most impersonated entertainer on earth.
For up-to-the-minute theater news, views and reviews, follow Jonathan Mandell on his Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater
End of the Rainbow
At The Belasco
By Peter Quilter
Directed by Terry Johnson; sets and costumes by William Dudley; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Gareth Owen; orchestrations by Chris Egan; musical arrangements by Gareth Valentine; music direction by Jeffrey Saver; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press
Cast: Tracie Bennett (Judy Garland), Tom Pelphrey (Mickey Deans), Jay Russell (BBC Interviewer/Porter/ASM) and Michael Cumpsty (Anthony).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $31.50 to 121.50. Premium 199.50. General rush: $31.50
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