Thursday, March 29, 2012

theatre review END OF THE RAINBOW, Broadway, March 22

The new Broadway play End of the Rainbow provides a private view into several weeks toward the end of Judy Garland's life.  It also has at it's core one of the best performances I've seen on stage in years.  A performance that has stuck with me for days since seeing the show.

Tracie Bennett may not look exactly like Garland and her singing voice might not be perfectly in line with Garland's pipes but Bennett is giving  a virtual tour de force performance.  While not much private footage of Garland from the mid 1960's is available, there are several concert videos and recordings that show Garland's frenetic behavior.  As I'm sure you are aware, Garland was addicted to pills and alcohol, allegedly stemming from her teen years working in Hollywood and being given doses of drugs by the studio management of uppers in the morning and downers in the afternoon to get through the long days of filming.

Now the play itself is just okay.  It centers on Judy's December 1968 five week engagement at London's "Talk of the Town" nightclub, about six months before Garland's death.  There are three characters, Judy, her fiance Mickey Deans and her piano player Anthony. The play tries to accurately show the irrational behavior of an alcoholic and drug addict after years of abuse and how the two men closest to her have to deal with her and her rollercoaster of emotions.  Her new and much younger fiance Deans at first tries to be her protector and tries to keep her away from the alcohol and drugs but you know eventually he will have to give in to Judy.  Anthony, who doesn't care for Deans, sees himself as the calming influence in Judy's life, a good friend of hers from the past, who has come back to her to help her get through this part of her life.   Both men have a need to have Judy in their lives and they both end up using her and being used by her, but in very different ways.

Tracie Bennett
Garland is portrayed as more of a happy addict, just someone who yearns to live a simple life but also has the burning desire to be the center of the party.  Bennett perfectly portrays the idea of Garland being pulled in these two different directions and was spot-on when it came to the several performance moments throughout the show.  She so perfectly captured the way that Garland owned the stage, the way she would fling the microphone cord around and almost get tripped by it and how she connected with the audience, an audience who never knew if Judy was going to have an emotional melt down on stage or not.  I have no idea how Bennett is able to perform this 8 times a week as she deserves an endurance medal just for getting through a single performance.

I don't know exactly what research playwright Peter Quilter did into Garland's life or what if any of the plays plot is real, but I feel like I've now seen Garland live on stage, spent a couple of hours with her off stage and have much more sympathy for her then I ever had before. So if that was the goal of Quilter then he has succeeded.
Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett and Tom Pelphrey 

Michael Cumpsty as Anthony is giving an excellent performance.  He is the calming person at the center of the Judy/Mickey world and he does so in such a personable way that I really hope he is remembered come Tony nomination time.  Tom Pelphrey as Mickey holds his one with Bennet's Garland, and you really get the sense that he does love her and is trying to help her succeed with her comeback and that he isn't just using her for her fame and fortune, what little fortune there was left at that time.

The show includes about ten musical moments where Bennett performs and it is at those moments when Bennett really comes to life as Garland.  You see the trouper who knows the show must go on but also the scared girl who just wants to be left alone.  A recording of the songs from the show, as well as several other Garland hits has been recorded by Bennett.  And while it would be just as easy to listen to the real Garland sing these songs it is thrilling to hear Bennett's take on them as well.

Now there were a couple of moments in the play that rang false for me.  It is mentioned several times that Judy would hide pills everyone - in her clothes, in the furniture, etc, so it seemed like more of a plot device then reality to have her pull out a bottle of pills in front of Deans that she had hid in the piano.  She did this as if she was showing off what she was capable of doing and to piss Deans off, instead of what we'd been told about how she hid the bottles from others.  This seemed to simply serve the purpose of instigating a fight instead of being based in reality.  Another moment that didn't seem real was when Mickey flips from being her protector to her enabler as it happened so suddenly without much build up.  Again, another moment that simply served to move the plot forward.

But still, this is Bennett's show and a performance you won't forget for a long time after the curtain comes down.   Bennett was nominated for an Olivier award for her work on the show in London last year and I have to believe she is the front runner for the Tony this year.

Official Show Site

Promo spot for the London run of the show.

An interesting inteview with Bennett where she talks about how she prepared for the role:

Bennett performs "Just In Time" at the 8 minute mark on this tv interview show clip:

Judy singing the same song in 1964:

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