History says Judy Garland accidentally died of a drug overdose in 1969. Don't believe it.
The star of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" is very much alive – though barely – in "End of the Rainbow," a British import that opened Monday at the Belasco Theatre. Tracie Bennett, the woman tasked with filling Garland's ruby slippers, is so stunning that she manages to raise the dead.
Set in a London hotel suite in late 1968, a feisty Garland has arrived for another comeback attempt, a five-week set of concerts. She is 46, flat broke and her much-younger fiance – Mickey Deans, a former club owner who will shortly become her fifth husband – is trying, and failing, to keep Garland sober.
"Whenever I drink water I always feel I'm missing out on something," she says at one point, looking mournfully at a glass from the tap. At another, she looks back on a wasted talent: "I didn't need help – I needed pills. No one ever got a grip of that."
Bennett doesn't simply play the fading actress and singer – she IS Garland: haughty, mannered, funny, arch, kittenish, pleading, needy, imperious, tortured and savage. The play, by Peter Quilter, could be maudlin and precious in other hands, but Bennett sings and inhabits an American icon in her final days with such skill and fearlessness that the seams are hidden.
Bennett also peppers the play with husky, vibrato-filled, pitch-perfect versions of songs in Garland's repertoire, including "The Man That Got Away," "Come Rain, Come Shine" and "Dancing in the Dark." Some are dream sequences, some are part of her lounge act, and all are heavily influenced by how much booze and pills she'd had – the snappish, irritable Judy when she's in withdrawal, and the manic, jerky performer when she's had handfuls of Ritalin.
To be sure, this is not the older Garland of the triumphant, stunning Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. The years since have been very unkind to the Garland we see: Her memory is shot, her beauty smeared and her addiction to "grown-up candy" has even led her to secretly sew up pills in the folds of her clothes. She's a classic, textbook addict, forever spiraling downward. The story is Garland's, but it just as well could be Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston up there.
In the play, Garland is the subject of a tug of war that will determine her fate: On one side is her fiance, played with a touch too much swagger by Tom Pelphrey, who wants Garland clean but grows exasperated by her antics and scared for their financial future. On the other is an admiring pianist – an understated and wry Michael Cumpsty – who is horrified by the Garland he sees and offers to whisk her to a simpler life. While such an angel-versus-devil device sounds reductive, on stage it works.
William Dudley's set is a luxury suite at the Ritz that gets lifted away when it's time for Garland to appear on the stage of the Talk of the Town, the venue for her concerts. Director Terry Johnson's swift transitions between the two sets and the way they sometimes linger together emphasize the dreamy half-private, half-public world of entertainers like Judy, famous enough to be known by just one name.
Playwright Quilter reveals just enough back story to try to explain how Garland got into this state: A mixture of being a child star – "I was up at 4 a.m., 14 years old, 15 hours a day, throat spray, tap shoes, take this, swallow that" – and crushing expectations – "It was so much easier at the beginning. It's a terrible thing to know what you're capable of ... and to never get there.")
Both those themes are hardly touched, and some may feel this biography needs more, but "End of the Rainbow" never intends itself to be anything but a sketch of a frail older woman falling to her demons. It's hard to watch, but even harder not to watch.
That's completely because of Bennett, a veteran of the English stage, but a newcomer here. That should change quickly. At one preview, audience members shot up from their seats and coaxed one more number from Bennett, begging for one more moment, just one more, please, with Judy. There can be no better compliment.
Tribute and trash collide uneasily in “End of the Rainbow,” a jacked-up portrait of Judy Garland that captures the legend at the end of her rope near the end of her life.
It is not a pretty picture. Or an illuminating one.
British writer Peter Quilter sets the action in December 1968 (six months before her death by overdose) at a hotel in London where Judy (Tracie Bennett) is staying during a five-week concert run at the Talk of the Town nightclub.
On hand is her young fiancé Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey, who can turn on the smarm). He has forced Judy to go cold turkey from booze and drugs to make it through the gig. She needs the cash. But she needs her substances more.
Lending a sympathetic and loving shoulder is Judy’s pianist, Anthony (an endearing Michael Cumpsty). The character exists to provide Judy a convenient confessor who comes in handy when she moans about exes and being fed pills as a kid.
The recollections will come as no surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of famously addled actress. So in lieu of insights, Quilter and director Terry Johnson rehash what’s been chronicled in books and films about Judy’s self-destructiveness.
Before an inevitable big meltdown, Judy drools on herself — first water, then booze — begs for pills, tosses tantrums, spews vulgarities and scratches her private parts.
Most memorably she downs tablets she pilfers from Anthony’s satchel only to learn they were for his sister’s spaniel. She scurries on all fours and cocks her leg doggy style. She finally rolls over and the piano player rubs her tummy. I, meanwhile, scratched my head — Why?
Bennett is something of a saving grace. She certainly gives her all. And while she doesn’t look or sound much like Judy — she is too lean and mean to suggest her frailty — she evokes the right desperation whenever she sings.
That is quite often. The story regularly shifts to the club and Judy belts hits like “Get Happy,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.” These are the moments when “Rainbow” beams brightest.
Big Broadway performances are polished, sometimes to a fault: They’re perfectly enjoyable, but they often lack a certain unpredictable battiness.
Not so with Tracie Bennett’s tour de force in “End of the Rainbow,” which opened last night at the Belasco. By the time she reaches the finish line, you’re almost as drained as she is.
And 150 percent is the least Bennett can give — after all, she’s playing Judy Garland a few months before her death, when the star teetered on the brink of self-annihilation. It’s a part that requires full emotional and physical commitment, and the willingness to make the audience uncomfortable. Rather than turn in another technically fine, ultimately safe Garland impersonation, Bennett gives us the Garland mystique.
This is all the more key since Peter Quilter’s West End import isn’t very good. It’s a decent vehicle for a drunk driver.
“End of the Rainbow” takes place in London in December 1968, when the 46-year-old Garland embarked on a five-week engagement at the Talk of the Town. The play goes back and forth between Garland’s hotel room and the nightclub, where she performs with manic, desperate intensity — a contemporary witness noted of the actual show, “This was all about having a whale of a time at night, and to hell with the morning.”
“End of the Rainbow,” directed by Terry Johnson (“La Cage aux Folles”), gives us those mornings, when an increasingly strung-out Garland literally gets on all fours to beg for Ritalin.
The one holding the supplies is her soon-to-be fifth husband, the much younger Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey, appropriately rough and arrogant). Reluctant at first, he starts supplying Garland when he realizes his meal ticket can’t perform without pills (“grown-up candy”) and booze.
The singer’s gay pianist, Anthony (a warm, dry Michael Cumpsty), tries to tether her to reality. A devoted Scotsman with the instincts of a St. Bernard, he wants only to take care of her.
But Garland’s in way too deep at this point, and she knows it. Bennett perfectly captures her savage wit and the violence of her changing moods — when she tells Deans, “I decide if and when I do shows,” a scary look of quasi-demonic anger flashes on her face.
Bennett doesn’t give a note-for-note imitation, even if she’s particularly good with physical mannerisms. Instead, she makes us understand the combustible mix of ego and self-doubt that made Garland such a fascinating performer, simultaneously professional and unhinged.
“Come Rain or Come Shine,” driven by hyperactive bongos, is textbook in that respect. Bennett leaps and jumps, headbangs and buckles like a marionette on speed. It’s so big that it’s almost embarrassing. And, of course, you can’t stop watching.
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 on Monday night 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.
How good is Tracie Bennett at channeling Judy Garland near the exhausting burnout of her brief, tumultuous life?
The British actress is so good that, for someone not a serious Judy devotee or somebody who gets kicks from watching train wrecks, she is really, really hard to be around.
No doubt, this is not the response desired by producers of "End of the Rainbow," the pseudo-biographical play-with-music that transferred from London with understandable raves for Bennett.
The actress goes for broke -- with amazingly little caution for what bone or vocal cord might get broken -- in her impersonation of Garland just months before her fatal overdose, at age 47, in 1969.
But Peter Quilter's flimsy play, despite the two male characters, is little more than a showcase for the fall and fall of one of the original celebrity icons, with sporadic timeouts for her extravagantly hyperactive performances from her familiar repertory.
We are at London's Ritz Hotel, decorated like Versailles by designer William Dudley. Judy is attempting another comeback with five weeks of concerts at a supper club. She also is attempting a relationship with Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), the callow young club promoter who became her fifth husband.
The always-fine Michael Cumpsty keeps his dignity as her adoring gay pianist. And director Terry Johnson, who won a Tony for his 2010 revival of "La Cage Aux Folles," keeps the manic energy up, despite such eye-rolling exchanges as "No booze! No pills!," inevitably followed by "Just give me the pills!"
The only reason to endure this is Bennett's impersonation. If you look at just her face, the tiny actress with the dancer's body looks surprisingly unlike Garland. Except for moments when she talks like Katharine Hepburn, she has the sound -- the phrasing and the wobble as wide as her character's mood swings. And she has the moves -- leaning back on her spine and grabbing the air as if she thinks it can hold her up.
It is a gutsy portrayal of an artist who, apparently, was too much for herself, who put more into her performances than she got back as a person. I get the message. I just don't get the point.
In "End of the Rainbow," wannabe manager Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) withholds pills and booze from Judy Garland (Tracie Bennett), doles them out to get her through a performance, and finally force-feeds them when she's too weak to fight. Which more or less approximates playwright Peter Quilter's treatment of the audience, not abetted by director Terry Johnson's sensationalistic treatment. Bennett is astonishing as the all-but-vanquished Judy, with actress and character dragged through the vomit on the carpet of the star's suite at the Ritz. But her turn attracts attention in a play that does everything it can to repel it.
Action centers around the opening of Garland's five-week stint at the Talk of the Town in London in December 1968. (Garland died of an overdose on June 22, 1969, and Quilter presents her as being on the verge of self-imposed oblivion.) What we get is not unexpected. The star is in no shape to perform; her soon-to-be husband is determined to milk every dollar he can get from her; her loyal, gay accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), tries to protect her, and even goes so far as to apply Judy's makeup when she is indisposed.
Bennett gives a startling performance, wallowing in booze and self-pity. Rabid fans of Garland are likely to either foam at the mouth in rapture -- with Bennett bringing them a meticulously etched rendition of Judy live, albeit at lowest ebb -- or proclaim the performance a disrespectful travesty. Either way, Bennett certainly acts the hell out of this hellish role.
She's also called upon to sing nine of the star's standards. Bennett loads the songs with Judy's mannerisms, naturally, although at times to the point of overload. This might not be the best impersonation of Garland you'll ever hear, but Bennett delivers a strong enough impression of the star.
Pelphrey, making his Broadway debut, isn't nearly as impressive, but Cumpsty gives one of his strongest performances as piano player Anthony. The presumably fictional character is a compilation of cliches: a gentle Scotsman who dotes on his mother, loves to sit in his little house listening to the rain on the roof while cooking, and would like nothing more than to whisk his idol away and treat her like royalty. Cumpsty makes it all believable and, with the well-timed raising of an eyebrow, entertaining.
Designer William Dudley's Ritz suite opens up occasionally, and not especially artfully, to reveal the Talk of the Town bandstand, but the six-piece band sounds very good. Included in the proceedings is a manically wild rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine," which stands out not for the Ritalin-fueled vocals but for the instrumental playing.