Photo caption: Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland at the Belasco Theater. More pictures here.
Ben Brantley of the NYT reviews: As befits a play about Judy Garland, a woman known for liberally mixing her pills, Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow is a jolting upper and downer at the same time. After watching Tracie Bennett’s electrifying interpretation of Garland in the intense production that opened at the Belasco Theater, you feel exhilarated and exhausted, equally ready to dance down the street and crawl under a rock.
In other words, you feel utterly alive, with all the contradictions that implies. That’s what comes from witnessing acting that is this unconditionally committed, not to mention this sensational — in every sense of the word.
Set in 1968 in a London hotel suite and a nightclub, where a shaky Garland has arrived for yet another of her fabled comebacks, Mr. Quilter’s play is in some ways your standard-issue showbiz pathography, a lurid account of the twilight of an all-too-mortal goddess on the eve of destruction. Yet while it includes details that would have been greedily consumed by readers of Confidential magazine, End of the Rainbow is revealing in a way that tell-all bio-drama seldom is.
For that you can thank Ms. Bennett, who, as directed by Terry Johnson, is giving one of the most complete portraits of an artist I’ve ever seen. More than four decades after Garland’s death at 47 in 1969, her persona (like that of Marilyn and Elvis) remains one of the most easily identified and imitated in American culture. Her impersonators, both male and female, were legion even before she died, and you can still find them in piano bars and lounge acts throughout the world.
What Ms. Bennett is doing, though, transcends impersonation. Yes, she has the nervy body language and linguistic tics down pat. And when she sings, she matches Garland’s late-career vocal stylings tremolo for tremolo.
Of course it’s not that difficult to strike a Garlandesque pose in a spotlight. Just cock a hip, arch your back and reach for the sky with one arm. Ms. Bennett gives us the poses not as isolated effects but as the end products of a long and torturous personal and professional history.
And even more than when I saw her in London last year, Ms. Bennett locates, both physically and emotionally, that perilous, bipolar energy that so often animates great performers. Touch this woman at your own risk. She burns.
Certainly the other characters in Rainbow feel that heat. Chief among them are Mickey Deans (a perfectly cast Tom Pelphrey), Garland’s manager and much younger husband-to-be (her fifth), and Anthony (a wonderful Michael Cumpsty), her pianist on this trip. (Jay Russell plays an assortment of other roles.) To these men falls the assignment of keeping Garland sober and making sure she shows up for her performances at the club, the Talk of the Town.
The ultimately insuperable task of fulfilling those duties shapes the plot of Rainbow, as it shifts between Garland’s Ritz Hotel suite and the stage where she sings with varying confidence and control. (William Dudley did both the set and the photo-exact costumes.) Just how long can these guys keep Judy away from pills and liquor? From running away and breaking down and disgracing herself in public?
Their stratagems differ in ways suitable to their roles as the archetypal men in Garland’s life. Mickey, an ambitious pretty boy from New York, is the latest (and last) in a succession of exploitative mates, exasperated men who don’t quite know how to love her.
Anthony, a transplanted Scot who stands in here for all the gay fans who worshiped and identified with Garland, thinks he knows exactly how to love her. But it is, at best, a Sunday kind of love he offers, a proposition that Mr. Cumpsty embodies most touchingly.
“What is it with you people?” Mickey angrily asks Anthony. “The more she falls apart, the more you adore her.”
That’s signpost dialogue, and there’s a fair amount of it in Rainbow. The play includes the requisite expository references to Garland’s monstrous stage mother, her previous husbands, her famous friends, her pharmaceutically sustained servitude to MGM and her legendary movie roles in The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star Is Born. And Garland utters generic lines that feel all too inevitable: “I gave them everything,” she says wearily of her audience. “There’s nothing left.”
On the other hand, this is Judy Garland. If she doesn’t have the right to talk like that, who does? She’s the girl who was born in a trunk and never really left it. She was primed to be ON, in capital letters, from earliest childhood and was force-fed pills to turn her on — and off — as if her prodigious talent were an everyday lighting fixture.
Ms. Bennett seems to keep every chapter of that history, and the disjunctive reality it created, alive in her performance. Foul-mouthed, flirtatious, hypersexual, childlike (though never innocent), unedited, manipulative and supremely self-conscious: Ms. Bennett’s Garland is all these things as she makes love and war with Mickey and Anthony.
She has a strong sense of herself as a human tragedy on a world stage, but her sense of humor, of the absurdity of it all, is just as sharp. (Some of her zingers, mostly unprintable here, are appallingly funny.) She is, in other words, a raging mess who can’t help how she behaves and knows it, which to me is a fair definition of hell.
And then she sings. (The onstage band, behind a scrim, is excellent.) And all those disparate, desperate elements coalesce into a coherent, riveting whole. That Ms. Bennett, performing Garland’s signature pieces, often sounds uncannily like the real thing wouldn’t count for much without this enriching context. In numbers that include a gorgeously introspective “Man That Got Away” and a terrifyingly manic, Ritalin-fueled “Come Rain or Come Shine,” you hear not only the music but also where it comes from. Empathy trumps exhibitionism.
“My God, Mickey,” Judy says to her husband at the end of the first act, “you gotta see the whole picture. It’s not this or that. Everything just comes at me at once, and it crashes from one thing to the other. I can’t control it — why can’t you see that?”
Perhaps Mickey never does see that, but Ms. Bennett definitely does. She makes sure we do too.