End of the Rainbow tells the story of the last weeks of Judy Garland’s life. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, and debt ridden, she’s spiraling downward — but her personality, on and off-stage, is as charismatic as ever. In London for a concert series, she’s staying in a lavish suite in a high end hotel (great set) with two men in tow: the young lover, Mickey, she’s taken on as her manager because he’s good looking — not the best reason to hire a business manager — and who’s in it for what he can get out the fading star, and Anthony, her long-time piano accompanist, who’s gay, loyal, and truly loves her.
Judy uses her star-power charm and desperate excess in dizzying rotation to get whatever she wants. When the hotel manager demands payment, she stands on the window sill threatening to jump, confident that, she tells Mickey and Anthony, the hotel won’t want Dorothy splattered all over their pavement. And they don’t. But mostly what she wants is booze and pills, which she sneaks or wheedles from the two men who are trying to keep her sober enough to make her performances.
Judy’s performance are fully staged with Anthony at the piano and a full on-stage backup band. Tracie Bennet, as Judy, belts out the great songs associated with Garland. Sometimes being juiced intensifies Judy’s performance. At other times it’s a hazard — she forgets her lines, forgets which song she’s singing — yet, she can get away with it. Her audience, broad but with a strong gay component, forgives her, loves her for her forceful delivery of the songs, loves her for her goofs, just loves her.
Anyhow, if she isn’t high, she won’t go on. Realizing this, Mickey changes tactics: he feeds her habits, revealing he’s only in it for himself (Judy tried to think otherwise but we’ve known he’s a sleaze bag all along). Anthony offers to take her away from all this to a quiet protected life but she turns him down. And, we learn, that not much after this Judy dies from an overdose, said to be accidental but suicide’s been in the air from that first foray on the window sill.
The situation is a framework for Judy to sing some wonderful songs of the 50’s and ‘60’s associated with her, including of course “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The play is just a vehicle: in that, it’s like cabaret but while Bennet is an excellent vocal stylist in a torch singer’s mode — not quite Garland’s — it’s not a voice you’d go to cabaret to hear. She’s fun to watch, and costumes are gorgeous and her way of moving within them exciting, but hard as she works, she doesn’t have an irresistible voice: Judy Garland did.
It’s as an actress, though, that Bennet is superb, petite, and with a dancer’s flexibility and stamina, and gives a fine portrait of an alcoholic, drug ridden, physically jerky, desperate and proud star. But the play is all on the surface, making no attempt to give insight into the source of Judy’s personal anguish¸ and the repetitive plot is mainly a lot of her going for the bottle, or the pills, and reeling around with their effect. The suspense is mainly about will she or won’t she be able to get through her radio interview? Her performances?
As Anthony, the brilliant actor Michael Cumpsty comes across well with a Scottish accent and tender caring for Judy. Handsome Tom Pelphrey’s wooden performance as the stud, Mickey, indicates that the casting director’s reasons for hiring him were as thin as Judy’s.
I didn’t see Judy Garland come to life in End of the Rainbow, nor hear her voice nor her style. The show’s gotten some “rave” reviews and — full disclosure — the audience all around me seemed to love it, and gave Traci Bennet a standing ovation. But I found, in spite of Miss Bennet’s fine performance, the play was so thin, and the great songs and Garland delivery so attenuated, End of the Rainbow was disappointing.
End of the Rainbow plays at the beautiful Belasco Theatre in Manhattan’s mid-town, just east of Broadway.