To his credit, in End Of The Rainbow (at the Guthrie, through March 11) playwright Peter Quilter refuses to give us the “pretty” Judy Garland, the achingly luminous singer who wowed us in The Wizard Of Oz (age 17), A Star Is Born (32), at the famous Carnegie Hall concert (age 41 – “The greatest night in show business history”).
Instead, Quilter zooms in on a pill-popping, vodka-slugging Garland three months before her death. This Judy was skeletally skinny, 47 (but looking 70). Her life had devolved into an hysterical search for drugs. She sweet-talked starstruck doctors, pursued sympathetic pharmacists. Ritalin to counteract the Seconal, Seconal to counteract the Ritalin, and on and on, in a horrific cycle ending with the great artist’s death via an “incautious overdose” (her body contained the equivalent of 10 Seconals). Deeply in debt, unable even to pay her hotel tab, everything was focused on the night’s performance: Garland had to make it onstage. End Of The Rainbow deals with this forthrightly. It frightens and disturbs.
As Garland, U.K. based Tracie Bennett rants and paces, poses and postures, coos and charms. She suddenly turns on the people who love her – her enabling fiancé, Mickey Deans, receives much of this abuse. Then, just as suddenly, Garland leaps into his arms, grinding into him.
And she sings. Periodically the rear wall of the hotel suite flies up to reveal The Talk Of The Town Nightclub and a solid six piece band. Bennett takes the stage with Garland-like assurance, singing standards like “Just In Time” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” all in a husky, low belt baritone. Bennett, nicely directed by Terry Johnson, delivers a calculated – and yet still quite mesmerizing performance.
Many of the songs are fragmented, Ritalin fueled, incomplete. This makes the performance section of End Of The Rainbow rather short. This is disappointing, for I found many of the hotel suite scenes repetitive and short on narrative momentum. Garland and Dean scream at each other endlessly. Deans goes from drug/booze teetotaler to enabler (“Take a few of these. They’ll fix you up.”) with no believable explanation. As Deans, Tom Pelphrey does solid, but thankless work.
Still, there are pleasures. There is a lovely scene between Judy and her gay pianist (Michael Cumpsty) in which the latter invites her to live with him in Brighton, watching the rain, eating shepherd’s pie, glorying in boredom. Sex? “I’m afraid there won’t be many fireworks in that department.” Cumpsty gives a gorgeously under-stated and compelling performance.
Does she still have it? I would have said no. This Judy is too far gone into addiction and insanity, too shrill, too hoarse, too boozed up. But then Bennett, at the very end, sings a breath-taking, astonishingly beautiful “Over The Rainbow.” Wow.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.