‘End of the Rainbow’ is a dark portrait of Judy Garland

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett in 'End of the Rainbow' — Photo courtesy of Carol Rosegg

It’s no wonder Tracie Bennett received a coveted Tony nomination for her transcendent performance in End of the Rainbow, a fictional play that looks at the final days of the legendary Judy Garland. Bennett so embodies this character that it becomes absolutely believable that we’ve traveled back in time to The Ritz Hotel in London, circa 1968. She has the mannerisms down pat, and gives herself over to the role, both emotionally and physically.

It’s likely the best performance of the Broadway season.

Equally impressive is Michael Cumpsty as Anthony, her loyal pianist and friend. With the guidance of Garland’s new paramour and manager (Tom Pelphrey playing Mickey Deans), Judy and Anthony try to dazzle the audiences in London with the singer’s celebrated repertoire. But things are a tough go.

This is the point in Garland’s career when her addictions got the best of her. In the play, she swigs alcohol, pops pills, speaks with a rather profane tongue and pretty much deconstructs the image of helpless little Dorothy in the world of Oz. As Bennett portrays her, Garland is a fractured woman with little use for anything or anyone. She’s broke. She’s maligned in the press. She gets into constant fights and often fails to impress at her concerts. Throughout all of this negativity, Bennett sticks to the character, giving every bit of her energy to convey Garland’s final days.

The problem, and it proves to be the show’s undoing, is that End of the Rainbow chooses to focus only on this late stage in the performer’s life. Rather than catching this star on its meteoric rise to fame or during the good old days, we are left with an unbecoming portrait of a woman who once held the world in the palm of her hands. Garland didn’t live the longest, happiest life, but she achieved many triumphs and overcame many obstacles. The showcase on display at the Belasco Theatre brushes most of this aside and chooses to go with the sensationalistic image. It never grows dull, and Bennett’s performance makes the material seem better than it is, but this feels like a colossal missed opportunity. Garland’s varied career, featuring so many great songs and partnerships with equally talented actors, deserves so much more than a a few days of dejection in a London hotel room.

If Bennett weren’t as effective, End of the Rainbow’s two-hour duration would feel like a constant beating of a dead horse. But this actress knows how to sell the part, especially in the musical numbers, when the backdrop of the hotel room floats away and we are transported to Garland’s “Talk of the Town” concerts. Bennett nails the throaty, distinctive voice of this American icon. But much like the spoken parts, we become witnesses to several less-than-stellar song renditions, when Garland can’t find the right note and even gets tangled in the microphone cord. This may serve the play’s dramatic arc, but sometimes it’s just nice to sit back and watch Garland find her stride and impress.

Playwright Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson keep everything finely focused and emotionally interesting, but their end result is such a tortuous portraiture that it begs the question: Why tell this story in the first place?

In a weird way, even though I knew this didn’t happen historically, I was rooting for Garland to rise above the addictions and get back on track. More than 40 years after her death, we’re all still hoping this performer’s legacy never reaches the end of the rainbow.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • End of the Rainbow

  • By Peter Quilter

  • Directed by Terry Johnson

  • Starring Tracie Bennett, Tom Pelphrey, Jay Russell and Michael Cumpsty

  • Running time: 2 hours

  • Currently playing at the Belasco Theatre at 111 W. 44th St. in New York City. Click here for more information.

  • Rating: ★★½☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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