June 14, 2012 at 8:25 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Judy in disguise

‘End of the Rainbow’
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
New York

From left, Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett and Tom Pelphrey in ‘End of the Rainbow.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg; courtesy O and M Co.)

The Judy Garland of “End of the Rainbow” (now on Broadway) isn’t the triumphant Judy who reclaimed her starry diadem after the astonishing comeback concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1961. This Judy is seven years older, further down on her luck and shakier than ever. And while playwright Peter Quilter’s close-up look at the disintegration of a great talent is compelling, it’s Tracie Bennett as Judy who takes the show to an entirely different level. Her spookily spot-on channeling of the troubled superstar is phenomenal.

Set in a suite in London’s Ritz Hotel and the nearby Talk of the Town nightclub where Judy is precariously poised to make yet another comeback, the musical play repeatedly asks the question will she or won’t she? Will Judy be able to perform? Will she stay sober? Doing their best to prop her up offstage and on are manager and soon-to-be fifth husband Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphry), and her gay Scottish-born pianist, Anthony (the excellent Michael Cumpsty). Ultimately, each is fighting a losing battle. Just months after the erratic London club dates, Judy would be dead from an accidental overdose of barbiturates. But for now the show must go on.

Bennett’s Judy draws on the star’s renowned wit, clownishness, foul humor and charm. There’s also the cunning and desperation of an inveterate drug addict. At this point in her life, Judy’s poison of choice is Ritalin washed down with Stoli vodka, but when she can’t get that, any other “adult candy” will do: After mistakenly gobbling pills that were prescribed for a mangy 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.”

Within the fancy suite (designed by William Dudley who also did the perfect costumes), there’s tension. Judy sees her younger paramour as a protector while accompanist Anthony considers Mickey a crass opportunist. He’s written and Pelphrey plays him somewhere in between. Initially Mickey weans Judy off drugs, but later becomes her supplier when she can’t perform without them.

Like any good bio play, “End of the Rainbow” covers all the bases. Judy recalls her vaudeville roots and Benzedrine-fueled MGM youth, cracking jokes about Mickey Rooney’s cigarette–stunted growth, Deanna Durbin’s unibrow and young Elizabeth Taylor’s charm (“She was so charming you just wanted to run her down with a car!”). She covers her lifelong drug addiction and a couple ex-husbands, but conspicuously absent is any mention of her three children whom from all accounts she adored.  She gives a nod to her gay fans: “I could throw up in their laps and I would still be glamorous.”

Bennett, who’s been playing the part since early 2010 when the musical opened to critical acclaim in London before transferring to Broadway in March, sounds and looks (especially in profile) like the bony, middle-aged Garland seen in variety show and concert clips. The manic, jerky movements are all there — outstretched arms, upturned palms, jumpy legs. But it’s more than an impersonation. Directed by Terry Johnson, Bennett fully inhabits the star, artist and damaged woman.

Her quavering voice is a tad hoarse, but it works for this late stage in Judy’s career. When she sings “The Man that Got Away,” her hotel room morphs into a nightclub, nicely demonstrating the blurred boundary separating the star’s private life and career. Her riveting Ritalin-addled take on “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a poignant commentary on a once great talent now sick but still putting across one of her signature songs.

Wry and unconditionally loving, Anthony (representing Garland’s many gay fans) offers Judy permanent sanctuary at his home by the sea, promising wholesome food, quiet walks and chaste kisses. Sounds cozy, but Judy isn’t biting. Despite more than once claiming to be “all sung out,” in the end she goes with what she knows: a chaotic life of work, fans and drugs.


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