End of the Rainbow: There’s No Place Like Center Stage

An elder Garland, a long way from her dazzling days as darling Dorothy, finds her way back into the limelight

3 171184 End of the Rainbow: Theres No Place Like Center Stage

Bennett.

End of the Rainbow, a tragic reflection with music of the last sad, declining days of the legendary Judy Garland, arrives on Broadway after breaking records in London’s West End and winning a bushel of awards for its star, a supersonically gifted dynamo named Tracie Bennett. At first glance, prancing her way into a suite at the Ritz to begin rehearsals for a five weeks of concerts at the fabled Talk of the Town, she does not sound, speak, sing or look anything like the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. I have seen drag queens do better Judys, mimicking every stage of her turbulent career. But then, despite the overbite and the hoarse voice without a shine in it, she begins to grow on you, like moss. Slowly, the nuances take you by surprise. Like Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, she begins to stake squatter’s rights on the role, not just imitating Judy, but channeling her. The book and direction of this show, by Peter Quilter and Terry Johnson, respectively, are as solid, filling and substantial as cracker crust. But by the time Tracie Bennett works her magic, captivates your imagination and captivates your soul, you know you are in the presence of someone electrifying.  

End of the Rainbow (an apt title if ever there was one) takes place seven years after Garland stopped the world in a historic comeback at Carnegie Hall, in those dark, destructive final days three months before her death in 1969 at the age of 47. The stars and the power brokers and the rich and famous people of the world (“I’ve met them all,” she says sardonically, “or rather they’ve all met me!”) have all disappeared. Here she is, at the bottom of her rope, dead broke and unable to pay for room service, her only companions a gay piano player named Anthony (Michael Cumptsy) and Mickey Deans, her new manager, fifth and final husband, and future enabler and drug pusher. With one skinny leg draped over the sofa, the high waistline Edith Head said was impossible to fit, and that innate sense of humor she never lost in good times or bum times, she reminisces about the Munchkins, the two husbands she could remember (Vincente Minnelli and Sid Luft), the pills they forced down her throat at MGM (“I could have flown over the Yellow Brick Road”) and everything from the cigarettes that stunted Mickey Rooney’s growth to the charm of Elizabeth Taylor (“She was so charming you just wanted to run her down with a car!”). Roaring with laughter and raunchy as a sailor, everything sounds like it came right out of Judy’s own mouth, and for all I know, it probably did.

Then the songs: on “Just in Time,” she has the same quiver in her lower register. On “For Me and My Gal,” the same vibrato on the high notes. On “The Man That Got Away,” the same identical sob in the pauses. Sometimes she gazes down on the crowds in the street below, surrounding the Ritz where she is facing eviction, and threatens to jump. But it’s her desperation to be adored that keeps her going. “I could throw up in their laps and I’d still be glamorous,” she says of her fans, giving the lie to what’s to come. Cussing and smoking and pacing nervously, she gets the body language down to a science. It doesn’t matter that Ms. Bennett’s timbre and intonation don’t always duplicate Garland’s at her greatest. She is, after, portraying Judy at her worst, at the end of her rainbow at last. Above all minor reservations, she is Garland. Outstretched hand, pointed arm, legs prancing like a Thoroughbred at Hialeah, she is the whole f—king show.

Tom Pelphrey is a believable Mickey Deans, although his thankless job is mainly to act as a prison warden for the neurotic, addicted Judy. As the Scottish piano player who loves her unconditionally, Mr. Cumptsy is both sarcastic and sympathetic, and the scene where he offers to marry Judy, take her off to Brighton and take care of her even though he knows he can never satisfy her in bed, is genuinely touching. But Tracie Bennett is the one you watch. Popping Ritalin, craving Champagne, begging for prescription drugs, walking off the stage of the Talk of the Town screaming “I’m all sung out,” her gestures, mannerisms and body language are heartbreaking, leavened only by that wicked humor. When she mistakenly swallows pills that were prescribed for a sick cocker spaniel, she says, “I don’t need a doctor. Call a vet. If I start to pee on a lamppost, then call a doctor.”

After a while, the rant overwhelms the story, which is slight and one-dimensional at best. But the show gets more powerful the lower she sinks. As a woman in blind panic, Tracie Bennett is galvanizing. It’s tragic watching her have a slow meltdown onstage. What a discovery! Every move is probably carefully mapped out, but it looks like director Terry Johnson wisely just moved out of the way and let her run her own show. The End of the Rainbow wears itself to a frazzle, but regardless of what happens to the show itself, time spent in the presence of Tracie Bennett’s undeniable talent is crushing, victorious and unforgettable.

rreed@observer.com