For leading lady, Tracie Bennett, the role of Judy Garland was not a new one. But it must be said her performance in the just concluded Broadway run of End of the Rainbow was certainly a tour-de-force reflection on the last years of Miss Garland’s often troubled life. Directed by Terry Johnson, this Peter Quilter play spares nothing of Judy’s tragic final efforts to free herself from her demons. The drug and alcohol addictions, emotional breakdowns, fiery rants, financial disasters and failed marriages are all on display. In one scene Judy can’t recall all of her ex-husbands’ names, quipping, “Who’d I miss? Grumpy, Dopey, Sleazy…?” Set in London of 1968, we find ourselves in Judy’s elegant French Provincial suite at the Ritz Hotel. Scenic designer, William Dudley, has created a charming grand salon with a soft ivory hue that is offset by ornate gold trim, sparkling chandelier, high ceilings, elegant furnishings and circular wall paintings in the classic style.
Speaking of ornate and elegant surroundings, the Belasco Theatre is a perfect example. Designed for impresario David Belasco by the architect, George Keister, the venue first opened as the Stuyvesant Theatre in 1907. Rich wood panels of the ceiling are accented by Tiffany lighting and stained glass, while enormous murals by American artist, Everett Shinn, preside on the walls above the proscenium. It is clearly one of Broadway’s most elegant houses, but alas, the elegance of the set and theatre did not translate to the performances on the stage. That may be due, in part, to some awkward aspects of the script, and to character interactions that make the piece oft times uncomfortable to watch. Michael Cumptsy plays Anthony, Judy’s gay and patient musical director, and there are flashes of both warmth and exasperation in his portrayal. Tom Pelphrey plays Mickey Deans, Judy’s manager, fiancé, and soon-to-be last husband. As the action begins in December of 1968, Deans goes head-to-head with her for tantrums, and tries with little success to keep the star sober and drug-free for the five-week concert run at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. Reflecting on her addictions, Judy muses, “No wonder I skipped down the Yellow Brick Road! I could have flown down it!”
Bennett was essentially fearless, savage, and occasionally tender as the struggling Garland, and really held up her end in many ways, especially vocally. Her somewhat raspy voice may have been tired as this four-month run came to a close, but the dynamic atmosphere of Garland’s song delivery was very much in evidence for numbers like, “You Made Me Love You.” She did not try to mimic the star we all remember, but she did capture mannerisms that were unmistakably Garlandesque. It was Bennett’s vocal power that rescued the show early in Act One as the bickering dialogue between the players in the hotel suite was becoming tiresome. Suddenly we were transferred to Judy’s onstage performance in Talk of the Town. Bennett explodes with a stunning, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and the powerful 5-piece band is revealed behind her. (Musical Director, Jeffrey Saver). She is a visual knockout as well, dressed in a crimson chiffon gown with scarlet feather trim. (Costume designs also by Mr. Dudley). The nightclub performance continues to build in excitement as Miss Bennett delivers an electrifying “Just In Time,” accented by audio echoes, with soaring voice and gestures to match. The segment was a wonderful relief for what had been approaching boredom, but the set closes in somewhat frantic fashion as Judy drags her fiancé reluctantly onstage to introduce him to the audience. Back in the hotel suite the following day, Judy is not very happy with a newspaper review photo that “…makes me look like the Bride of Frankenstein.” She runs herself down with lines like, “My chin and my tits are in a race to my knees.” Bickering escalates and we start to hear the saucy tongue and four-letter words Judy can quickly toss off when angry. ( Watch out! She might toss a fruit bowl across the room as well.)
Unpaid hotel bills endanger the continued stay until Judy threatens the manager with a jump out the window that might result in “…Dorothy splattered all over your red carpet.”
An awkward BBC radio interview follows (announcer played by Jay Russell), and Judy demonstrates her knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time as she asks the broadcaster, “Is your sex life as colorful as your sweater?” But suddenly the tension is relieved and we are jetted back to Talk of the Town as Judy delivers “For Me and My Gal,” and “The Trolley Song,” with a playful hyper-energy that seems at times to be alternately frantic and grotesque. Back in the hotel suite the drunken rants and petty arguing with Mickey become increasingly annoying. Her desperate groveling on the floor is disturbing as Mickey finally storms off and she belts out a wailing, “Man That Got Away.”
In Act Two’s return to the nightclub Judy is in a glittering, rust-colored suit as she delivers a disjointed, “When You’re Smiling.” It is full of wandering ad libs, off-tempo singing, forgotten lyrics and cursing from the stage. We move on to a “Come Rain or Come Shine” that seems like a freak show exhibit exaggerating every physical quirk associated with Miss Garland. Soon her death from a drug overdose follows, but our pain continues as we hear speculation that, “Immortality might just make up for everything.” Judy has a ghostly return for a weepy and melancholy, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that somehow seems joyless and out of place.
We have seen all the troubles we wish a troubled life could avoid, and I found myself hoping it was never quite this bad for the diva. Sure, much is based in the reality of her struggles, but is this the Judy Garland we need to remember? I don’t think so.