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A CurtainUp Review
End of the Rainbow
By Elyse Sommer
With so many beautiful memories to treasure, why spend two hours dwelling on the depressing last chapter of her life? Simple! There are few pyrotechnics of which a story without dysfunctional elements is capable. Eugene O'Neill's one play about a happy family, Ah! Wilderness, is one of his least often produced. Whether about an individual or a family, dysfunction offers more high drama than a happy, upbeat narrative, and a playwright interested in creating a show about a cultural icon like Judy Garland, is up against the available DVDs and albums, not to mention the many Garland Impersonators and the huge fan base's protective of any disservice to her memory.
And so what Peter Quilter did was write a bio-drama about the very final chapter of Judy Garland's life that provides a chance to capture some of the Garland magic as well. The narrative focuses on the final months during which she tried to get back on her feet with an engagement at a famous London cabaret club. The action segues from the behind the scenes drama of that engagement at On the Town to scenes excerpting the songs she sings there. The resulting play with music is a depressing and dramaturgically so-so affair but it's a big gift for the actress portraying Judy. Tracie Bennett has certainly made the most of that gift.
Quilter's play and Bennett's performance made enough of a splash in London to bring it to Broadway, with Bennett reprising her Olivier award winning Judy role, and Terry Johnson again at the helm. William Dudley's elegant and versatile Ritz Hotel Suite where End of the Rainbow unfolds couldn't have found a more compatible home than the Belasco, a theatrical jewel box which underwent a spectacular renovation several years ago. The cartouche framed paintings all around the theater and the decor of Dudley's set seem all of a piece. the way one of those hotel suite paintings morphs into a bandstand of the On the Town club is a most impressive and effective display of double duty stagecraft.
The story of Garland's sad exit from life does touch on the well known details about her life. However, don't expect any new insights into just what made her a one of a kind cultural icon who radiated great charm despite the substance abuse. Qullter's portrait of Judy is dismally dark. Though her sense of humor is also much on display, it's heavily shaded with bitter sarcasm and coarseness. Some of it may not tickle everyone's funny bone — like the episode that has her crawling on the floor and lifting her leg doggie fashion after it turns out that the pills she nabbed from Anthony's briefcase were intended to treat his sister's springer spaniel's mange.
Bennett does indeed do an extraordinary job with this demanding role that must give a reasonable facsimile of Judy Garland's 's unique talent as well as show her ever escalating disintegration. The musical numbers are interspersed with the backstage drama —the tension between her boy-toy husband to be (#5) and her devoted pianist and their efforts to keep her off booze and pills. The actress does evoke a sense of Garland's speaking and singing voice and her performance mannerisms. (According to a New York Times article by Patrick Healy on the Sunday before End of the Rainbow's official opening, she comes to the role from a decade of playing versions of Garland). But this portrayal is so harsh that neither the enormous stage charisma or the vulnerable little Frances Gumm who always remained within super star Judy Garland ever fully surfaces. For all the Judy-like vocal and physical nuances, Bennett never quite stops being anything but a fine actress giving the performance of her career.
While End of the Rainbow is very much Bennett's show, her on stage colleagues — Tom Pelphrey as the exploitative fiance Mickey Dean and Michael Cumpsty as Anthony, her devoted Gay pianist —, are as vital to adding some needed plot conflict as their characters are in helping Judy fulfill her five week gig at the London club. The two men are probably meant to reflect the whole world of people who had a vested interest in Judy's sobriety and career success, especially gay men like Anthony who loved her and empathized with her falls from grace.
Pelphrey and Cumpsty are both new to the American production (as is the triple cast Jay Russell). Cumpsty, whose work I've long admired, is outstanding. Though Bennett has the showiest role, it's Cumpsty who delivers the most genuine emotional depth and vulnerability.
For me the play's one best dramatic scene comes at the top of the second act when Anthony lovingly applies the shaky Judy's makeup and supplies the sort of morale boost that's more powerful than any pill. The second act also features one of Bennett's most show stopping a numbers. Exhausting as this and her entire performance is, don't go rushing off when the curtain comes down. The energetic star generously does more than just take a curtain call.
For our Lizzie Loverdge's review of the London production go here.
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