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NEW YORK — In a full-throttle performance that holds nothing back, Tracie Bennett channels an off-the-rails Judy Garland near the completion of her downward spiral, giving End of the Rainbow a fiercely dynamic center. But there’s a gulf between the vehicle and the vulnerable human being that the actress rarely traverses in this bio-drama with songs, thanks to writing by Peter Quilter that hits every obvious note except the pathos, and to Terry Johnson’s unrelentingly emphatic direction.
Transferring to Broadway after a well-received London run, the production no doubt counts on accessing the Garland worship that still endures among gay men of a certain age. Beyond that, it’s a sad spectacle that should (but doesn’t) muster some resonance in light of such recent casualties of fame and addiction as Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston.
Bennett’s highly physical performance is a chewy mix of mimicry and interpretive essence, approximating the vocal mannerisms, the twitchy body language and the parallel bullet trains of self-adulation and self-destruction that define Garland in her addled twilight. However, despite the flashy technique and bewildering stamina, there’s something distancing about this whole macabre sideshow.
The play is set in December 1968, when Garland is preparing to make her latest comeback with a five-week singing engagement at London’s Talk of the Town. She checks into a suite at the Ritz that she’s too broke to pay for and wastes little time in attempting to wheedle pills and booze out of her new manager, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), in line to be husband number five. Also on hand is Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), the pianist at Garland’s disastrous 1964 Melbourne concert, who has enlisted for further punishment.
While the Scottish accompanist is more of a factional representative than a character — a lonely gay man nursing his own bruises, whose devotion to Judy only intensifies the lower she falls — Cumpsty dignifies it with the production’s most understated performance.
The unconvincing Pelphrey doesn’t fare so well. Mickey is portrayed as a one-dimensional opportunist. He overestimates his influence in keeping Judy on a leash and then switches abruptly to heartless enabler when it becomes clear that giving her what she wants is the only way she will fulfill her professional obligations. There’s not the remotest sense in Pelphrey’s performance of why Deans went on to marry Garland just three months before she died of a Seconal overdose in 1969.
Much of the first act is a repetitive merry-go-round of fidgety high spirits, diva tantrums, maudlin self-pity, jittery agitation and self-deprecating humor. Bennett’s Garland is vulgar and volatile, favoring the spiky side over the fragility. She’s also a clown, notably when panting and rolling over like a dog after downing a handful of pills meant for canine consumption.
One of Quilter’s key points, which is hardly a fresh angle, is that she was “on” all the time, playing the legend even in private. That’s well and good, but it doesn’t help foster an emotional connection to the character.
Johnson did a lovely job on his recent intimate-scale La Cage aux Folles revival. But his direction here allows for scant modulation, instead busily setting up barbed zingers and jaded confessions: “I have swallowed and vomited more drugs than you could possibly imagine,” snarls Judy in fire-breathing drag-queen mode, listing the buckets of uppers, downers and alcohol she regularly ingested at home. “I was buzzing! You could have shoved cables into me and powered Manhattan!”
There’s a harrowing story in the life of the Hollywood kid who was fed amphetamines and barbiturates from her early teens to enable her to be up at 4 a.m. and work 15-hour days. When Judy Davis played the star in the 2001 telefilm, Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, there were plenty of inadvertently campy moments of overwrought melodrama. But there was also a real and profoundly wounded person beneath the mask and the mess. In Quilter’s play, we mainly get the screaming cliché, sending it more over the top than over the rainbow.
While she takes her cue from the limiting material, Bennett nonetheless is such a whirlwind of manic energy that you wonder where it comes from in such a tiny, sinewy body.
Vocally, she gets the slurry delivery, the wobbly vibrato and the somewhat ragged sound of Garland in her later years while still commanding the signature power and warmth.
In a touching interlude at the end of the first act, reality morphs into performance as she sings “The Man That Got Away” after Mickey storms out. But it’s in the Talk of the Town scenes — the back wall of William Dudley’s hotel suite set disappears to reveal a bandstand with five musicians — where Judy communes directly with the audience that Bennett really ignites. Watching her tear through a deliriously accelerated “Come Rain or Come Shine” while hopped up on Ritalin is a trip. And an encore of “By Myself” doubles as Bennett’s gift to the audience and her more measured homage to Garland’s singular talent.
Her performance certainly doesn’t lack for commitment, just for a more nuanced play.
Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumpsty, Tom Pelphrey, Jay Russell
Playwright: Peter Quilter
Director: Terry Johnson
Set and costume designer: William Dudley
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Orchestrations: Chris Egan
Musical arrangements: Gareth Valentine
Music director: Jeffrey Saver
Presented by Lee Dean, Laurence Myers, Joey Parnes, Ellis Goodman, Shadowcatcher Entertainment/Alhadeff Productions, National Angels U.S., Charles Diamond/Jenny Topper, Myla Lerner/Andrew Bryan, Spring Sirkin/Candy Gold, Hilary Williams, S.D. Wagner, John Johnson, in association with Guthrie Theatre
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