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April 14, 2012

Is "End of the Rainbow" the End for Judy?

Movies and plays in which actors impersonate more famous celebrities aren’t my favorite form of entertainment. And yet I had really looked forward to seeing End of the Rainbow, the new musical drama in which the British actress Tracie Bennett portrays Judy Garland. 

Now, having the seen the show, which opened at the Belasco Theatre last week, I’m still not crazy about these kinds of shows but I’m glad I saw this one.  That’s because Bennett is giving the kind of leave-your-heart-on-the-stage performance that even Garland might applaud.

Like most people my age, I first fell for Garland after seeing the “Wizard of Oz” and the old let’s-put-on-a-show movies that she did with Mickey Rooney on TV. But I really got hooked on Garland with her performance in “A Star is Born,” one of her many mid-career comebacks, and then later by Gerald Clarke’s ironically-titled biography, “Get Happy.”

It isn’t difficult to find drama in Garland’s life story which is chocked full with more battles with booze, pills, bad romances and poor self-esteem than a file cabinet full of case histories at the Betty Ford Clinic.

British playwright Peter Quilter, who’s made a career out of writing back-stage stories and big juicy parts for female actors, focuses on the events surrounding Garland’s final comeback attempt at a London nightclub and her final love relationship with Mickey Deans, the New Jersey-born disco club manager who would become her fifth husband just three months before her death from an overdose in 1969 (click here to read a poignant account of their wedding). 

But Quilter’s main challenges in End of the Rainbow are (1) to give enough background information without getting bogged down in exposition or boring the people who already know the back story (at which he does a fair enough job) and (2) to provide a reason beyond voyeurism for theatergoers, particularly those not so well acquainted with Garland’s sad tale, to see the show (at which he’s far less successful). 

That shifts a lot of weight onto the performers. As anyone who’s seen a drag show will tell you, it isn’t difficult to find Garland impersonators. But her manic energy, distinctive verbal tics (the tremulous voice and breathy phrasing) and flamboyant mannerisms (the outstretched arm and thrown back head) have been cat nip for more serious actors too.

Judy Davis won an Emmy for the 2001 TV biopic “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” and Anne Hathaway is currently shopping a new big screen biopic based on Clarke’s book.  Meanwhile, the Aussie star Caroline O’Connor won the Helpmann Award (the Australian Tony) for End of the Rainbow when it premiered in Sydney back in 2005. Now Bennett, who got an Olivier nomination for the London production, looks to be a serious contender for a Tony.

Although she doesn’t really look like Garland, isn’t as magnetically charismatic (who is?) and isn't as soulful a singer (although she does a good job of performing some of Garland’s signature tunes, especially an plaintive version of “The Man That Got Away”) Bennett is terrific when it comes to portraying the star’s desperate neediness, maddening stubbornness, and endearing  ability to laugh at herself. 

Bennett is a dynamo onstage and, like Garland, she seems willing to do anything to make you love her. According to the New York Post, Bennett is even playing hostess at a bar that’s been set up backstage to entertain visiting celebrities after the show (click here to read the article). 

But this isn't entirely a one-woman affair. There is also marvelous support from the always-terrific Michael Cumpsty, who plays Anthony, a fictional gay pianist who accompanies the singer during the London engagement and yearns to rescue her. Cumpsty’s portrayal of a gay man of a certain age (and of a certain time) rings true, as does the aching regret he brings to Anthony's awareness that won’t be able to save Garland from herself.

Less successful is Tom Pelphrey’s Deans. People have debated for years whether Deans, who was 12 years younger and light years less-well known than Garland, really loved the star or was just using her—and about the role he played in her final fall off the wagon. The ambiguity is one that an actor like a younger Cumpsty would have used to fuel a rich, multi-dimensioned character but Pelphrey’s Mickey simply comes across as a bland pretty boy. 

When you add it all up, it’s hard to tell how well this show will do. There were far more empty seats in the house than I had expected the night my husband K and I saw End of the Rainbow. And gauging by the grosses, the tickets that are being sold are deeply discounted. 

There was a time when Garland’s deep fan base in the gay community might have kept the show going. But according to first-person articles in the New York Times  (click here) and New York Magazine (and here), younger gays have turned to younger icons. And so, this really may be Judy’s final comeback.

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