We owe the Brits a great debt for gifting us with the bombshell called Tracie Bennett.
The slim actress/singer, who would appear from her photo to be a contemporarily coiffed blonde, has immersed herself into the psyche and spirit of Judy Garland in the play called End of the Rainbow which exposes us, in grim detail, to the final weeks of Ms. Garland’s life, when she was encamped at the Ritz Hotel and playing a five week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town.
Bennett is giving the performance of the season, and she is so able to inhabit the essence of Garland, I swear if she needed her legs to be slimmer (as Garland’s were) they would grow slimmer. But she needn’t bother; they are just fine.
Yes, she’s got all the mannerisms down pat; the head back, the microphone almost inside her open mouth, her one arm reaching for the sky, but some of the imitators, male and female, have accomplished that before. What is different about this performance is that the star has found a way to channel the thought processes, the conflicting sub textual messages that often emerged from a mind mangled with drugs doing battle with other drugs.
We already know many of the background facts about the early start MGM gave Garland on amphetamines to give her the energy for the cameras, on the barbiturates to allow her to sleep at night so she could shine again come morning. But Bennett plays so convincingly, managing to retain her sense of the ridiculous even when she is falling deep into the pit of despair, the final one of which becomes the first from which she cannot escape.
She died, we are told in a final soliloquy from a character called “Anthony”, beautifully played by Michael Cumpsty, an aged homosexual who truly loved her, who wanted nothing more than to help her flee her demons. But of course he was too late, and she had to, almost wanted to, continue her toboggan slide through the last years of her comet ride of a life.
Garland’s final and fifth husband, Mickey Deans, an opportunist who controls her because he is younger than she, is attractive to her, and because he feeds her the pills when it is to his advantage to do so, and keeps them from her when that suits him as well. He’s played on one note by Tom Pelphrey, but he looks right, and in defense of the actor, the role is only brush stroked by the author. He does have the physical strength to make the battles with his woman (physical and philosophical) believable and frightening and painful to watch. But the vulnerability that is always there in Ms. Bennett’s performance keeps us rooting for her right up to the end.
The use of music, with a five piece band, lets us have a look at the great success at the night club, and a look also at the tattered version of the same act when it’s performed by an overdosed star who punishes the parquet while tearing her heart out, along with her throat. It’s all there — the vibratos, the on pitch wails, the low notes that throb, as we are treated to various interpretations of “Over the Rainbow”, “The Man That Got Away”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “The Trolley Song” and others not always associated with Judy Garland.
The band is terrific, and it’s one night club act, like her incredible run at the Palace in New York, that on its good nights will be remembered always by those lucky enough to have been present at the time.
Terry Johnson has kept this play moving constantly back and forth from the suite at the Ritz to the nightclub. William Dudley’s set and the Garland costumes are spot on, the flashy Deans suits, the comfortable but unfashionable wardrobe for Anthony, all add to the authenticity of the visual in December of 1968.
This play is not easy viewing, but it dares to show the warts and all, and we join her dear friend Anthony at the end in wishing she’d been able to change course, for she was only 48 when she left us.
I can’t remember being as enthralled with a performance as I was with Tracie Bennett’s – not since Laurette Taylor exposed her Amanda in The Glass Menagerie 70 years ago, and I’ve seen Judith Anderson’s “Medea”, Colleen Dewhurst’s “Martha”, Julie Harris’ “St. Joan”, Gertrude Lawrence’s “Liza, the Lady in the Dark,” Ethel Merman’s “Mama Rose” and a couple of other iconic performances from the great ladies of the stage. You’ve perhaps read how highly I regarded Audra McDonald’s “Bess” this season. I think it will be neck and neck up to the Tony’s finish line between Bess and Judy, and I would think Judy has a good chance of winning by that very small nose of hers.
The Belasco Theatre, home to End of the Rainbow, is the perfect house for it. Ancient itself, once decrepit and dilapidated, it has been returned to all its former glory from top to bottom. We have the end of the rainbow now with this excellent play by Peter Quilter, and we have all the great Garland films to remind us again and again, now and forever, what a great legacy its star left behind for all of us.
End of the Rainbow is running at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W 44th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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