The relentlessness of being Judy Garland is captured on stage, benefiting no one
A lot of men took advantage of Judy Garland during her lifetime, exploiting her fragile mental health, her precarious finances, or her penchant for pills and liquor to get her up on stage just one more time.
In Peter Quilter's play, End of the Rainbow, the latest is her husband-to-be Mickey Deans, who uses all three to convince her to continue what would be her last comeback tour in 1968. In less than a year she would be dead from a drug overdose.
In the play, Deans seems reluctant to use his fiancée, at least at first. But Quilter doesn’t hesitate to reveal the ugliest parts of the singer's life. He gives her the full supermarket-tabloid treatment, showing her shouting obscenities at her fans, crawling across the floor begging for pills, and guzzling down prodigious amounts of vodka. Just when you think it couldn't get any more dismal, there's Judy vomiting down the back of a sofa.
Garland's life is certainly not off-limits to dramatists. In John Fleck's one-man-show Mad Women, which ran all too briefly at La Mama last year, his running commentary while playing a bootleg recording of one of Garland's late performances revealed some unsettling truths about the connection between the singer and her gay devotees. Quilter, who throws in a gay character of his own, doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say. He move from one overwrought episode to the next, punctuating them with a half a dozen or so of Garland's greatest hits.
In this jukebox musical disguised as a play, the music might be the biggest disappointment. Most of the songs are performed onstage as part of Garland's nightclub act (the onstage sextet sounds fantastic), but Quilter can't resist using some of them to comment on the action. He devises a scene where Mickey angrily walks out on a drug-addled Garland just so she can sing—of course—"The Man That Got Away." If that sounds a bit too on the nose, wait until she serenades a bottle of pills with "You Made Me Love You."
It's not that Tracie Bennett, who stars in End of the Rainbow, doesn't put everything she has into her portrayal of the legendary singer. If anything she tries too hard, and even the slightest gesture or facial expression seems carefully calculated. And it's not just in the scenes when Garland is performing at the nightclub; even when she's alone in her hotel suite she seems to playing to the audience. Frankly, it's exhausting. Wasn't there any moment of the day when Judy wasn't being Judy?
Bennett got rave reviews playing the part last season in London, but it's difficult to understand why. She doesn't physically resemble Garland, and her mannerisms are ridiculously broad. Instead of simply walking, Bennett struts and poses like a runway model, and she doesn't run when she can fling herself through the air, having to be caught mid-air by one of the actors in the thankless roles of Garland's soon-to-be husband Mickey (Tom Pelphrey) or her accompanist Donald (Michael Cumpsty).
Bennett sounds more or less like Garland when she's singing, but there's a sameness to the numbers. It doesn't matter whether Garland is supposed to be giving a scintillating performance or barely holding it together, because Bennett delivers each full-voiced and at full volume, as if she were a contestant on "American Idol." A drag queen lip-synching to "Over the Rainbow" has more subtlety. This is probably purposeful on the part of director Terry Johnson; if the audience came to hear Garland's most famous songs, why give them ragged versions, even if it would make more sense dramatically?
If you're in the mood to hum along to some old Judy Garland tunes, head down to Marie's Crisis or one of the other piano bars in the West Village. You're likely to hear renditions that are more inspired, and more heartfelt, than those in End of the Rainbow.
End of the Rainbow is playing at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St. Tickets are $66.50 to $121.50 and are available at 212-239-6262 or www.telecharge.com.