During intermission for End of the Rainbow at the Belasco Theatre, a fellow theater reviewer mumbled to his date, “This has been so done before.” Not really. While Judy Garland bios and retrospectives and books abound, it’s not the stuff we normally see on Broadway. And if we see it onstage at all, a man usually takes the driver’s seat.
Oh, yeah, and when it is done, it’s never this fantastic. Credit goes to all involved, but let’s not fool ourselves: End of the Rainbow is Tracie Bennett’s show, and she’s a wonder. Not only does she have Garland’s mannerisms down to a click-your-heels T, and not only does she sound almost eerily like her when she performs some of Garland’s most famous songs, she acts the hell out of this impossibly complex role. By the time Bennett sings a curtain call encore, as Garland, it’s almost as if Judy, after the suffering, the pills, the booze, the exhaustion, and the insanity of her stardom life, couldn’t disappoint her screaming fans. She doesn’t.
End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter, traces Garland’s last months on earth, while performing another “comeback” performance in London. The plot is simple, the dynamics are not. Garland arrives at the Ritz Hotel (William Dudley did the simple and effective sets, as well as the spot-on perfect costumes) with her new fiancé and manager, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), and are soon joined by Garland’s gay piano player, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty).
Deans, young and sexy, insists Garland go it cold turkey, not allowing her even a sip of Champagne until the performances are over. Good luck with that. Garland connives and schemes and begs and cries and throws tantrums to get what she wants—namely, pills and liquor and everything else befitting of a toddler on top—all the while not being able to pay her hotel bill or have any sort of conversation that isn’t fueled by anger, sadness, zest, and wicked sarcasm. She is a brilliant star whose orbit doesn’t land anywhere near the confines of planet earth. And she is sympathetic—thank you, Bennett.
While Act One is filled with laugh out loud humor, Act Two is more of a horror story, even when it’s decadently, or, more often than not, tragically, funny. Director Terry Johnson smartly intersects hotel scenes with concert performances (the orchestra is behind a scrim), and we get to see the zoo animal at her best—“The Man That Got Away”—and worst—there’s a drug-induced “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Garland’s berating an unhappy crowd.
The writing is, at times, back-story-loaded, so Garland’s turbulent history gets a bit of a bump up for anyone who’s not familiar. It’s often smartly handled within her own drunken anecdotes, only occasionally slipping into obvious narration. There’s also a too-tidy finish that could have been more deftly carried out. The two men in Garland’s life are depicted as good versus evil, as Deans eventually gives in to Garland’s demands and fuels her, feeds her, anything to keep her performing. Cumpsty’s deadpan and lovingly portrayed Anthony serves as Gay Saint, knowing that what Garland really needs is rest and a break from being “Judy.” Neither solution is realistically workable, and therein lays the paradox of her fame.
Pelphrey’s portrayal, too, is a bit muddled. He’s spoken of (by Anthony) as a gold-digging monster, but at times you almost empathize with his struggle to keep the star on her feet. Part acting and part writing, he’s too nice, so that when he switches gears in Act Two and is pouring gin down his fiancée’s throat, the transformation is too quick to be entirely believable.
Which leads us back to the beginning, as well as the present. As solid a piece of work as End of Rainbow is, it’s nothing without Bennett’s bravura performance. And for anyone else who thinks this has been “so done before,” they should keep in mind Whitney Houston, who was only a year older than Garland when she overdosed, and Michael Jackson, who was also in the midst of a comeback concert series when he overdosed. And also being treated and fed drugs to keep him up where bluebirds fly. End of the Rainbow, and Tracie Bennett, make for both a night of electric entertainment and a horrifying reminder of so many stars who’ve been born.
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