Tuesday, April 3, 2012

End of the Rainbow

I am left with two dominant thoughts after seeing End of the Rainbow, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre. One is that British actress/singer Tracie Bennett will win the Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life. On a less positive note, I couldn’t help but feel that playwright Peter Quilter is just the latest in a long line of people trying to make money off of a woman who was magnificently talented but whose drug and alcohol addictions were far beyond her ability to cope. This is quite often a painful show to watch.

The play, directed by Terry Johnson, comes to Broadway following a successful West End run. It dramatizes the weeks in December 1968 that a financially broke Garland spent at the Ritz Hotel in London while performing her last “comeback” concerts at the Talk of the Town nightclub. It’s definitely powerful theatre, but I wonder what is the purpose of watching such a sick woman spewing obscenities while in constant motion either from her high on drugs or her withdraw from them, twitching her way from one side of the room to the other or rolling on the floor, half dressed, with her makeup smeared.

The pain of witnessing someone disintegrate before your eyes is relieved by interspersed scenes of brilliance as the back wall of the suite (gorgeous sets and costumes by William Dudley) lifts and a six-man onstage orchestra recreates the elegance of Garland’s concerts, with the diva now all glittery, gowned and energized (well, high), dazzling her audience with some of the songs she helped make famous, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolley Song.” Bennett amazed me with her ability to capture both sides of Garland’s world, and her singing is breathtaking. We saw her at Saturday’s matinee and she was holding nothing back for the evening performance. I can’t imagine how she does that eight times a week. She even returns post-curtain call to sing “By Myself.” This is her Broadway debut; she earned an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the London production. I hope we will see much more of her.

Her costars also are in excellent form. Michael Cumpsty (in photo) plays Anthony, Garland’s devoted accompanist, so convincingly that my friend Brenda and I were speculating at intermission over whether he was really playing the piano. I thought he was and Brenda was uncertain, but by the end we were both convinced he was. His hands and feet are in all the right places at the right times, but nope, he’s just a good actor.

In the other major role, Tom Pelphrey is Garland’s young soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans. Jay Russell plays several lesser roles.

While Anthony seems to genuinely care about Garland, Mickey is more concerned with the money she can make from the concert engagement. It is harrowing to watch him force-feed a hung over Judy Ritalin to ensure she goes on that night.

Which leaves me with the question why. The play offers no new insight into Garland’s life. No transformative ending awaits -- Garland died of a massive overdose six months later at the age of 47, so down and out that Frank Sinatra paid for her funeral. Why do we need to watch her degrading final act on display in such excruciating detail? It’s time to let her be remembered for her gifts rather than her demons. They did far too much damage to her in her lifetime.

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