Tuesday, May 22, 2012

End of the Rainbow

Tracie Bennett inhabits Judy Garland in END OF THE RAINBOW

Judy Garland, who was born Ethel Gumm, started in show business at the age of two-and-a-half. She later was coupled with her older siblings as the Gumm Sisters to become a well known vaudeville act.

Renamed Judy Garland, she was signed to a Hollywood contract and, in the late 1930s starred in the Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney. She became America’s sweetheart in such films as The Wizard of Oz, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, For Me and My Gal and Meet Me In Saint Louis. Songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” became synonymous with her name.

As was the case with many child stars, in adulthood, she was deeply troubled. She became known as being unreliable and unstable and her career ebbed and waned.

She married for the first time at age 19 to bandleader David Rose. It was a short-lived union. She went on to marry Vincent Minnelli, bore daughter Liza, and soon was again divorced. And so the pattern of her life was set. Short-term relationships were ever present.

On June 22, 1969, at age 47, she died from an overdose of pills. She left behind a legacy of great performances, special memories, and a number of fanatic fans. Her popularity, over fifty years after her demise, is still strong.

Peter Quilter’s END OF THE RAINBOW, which is loosely based on the book, WEEP NO MORE MY LADY by Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth and final husband, focuses on the latter stages of her life.

In the play, Garland is scheduled to appear at The Talk of the Town, in London. She is financially broke, helplessly addicted to drugs and booze, and has had an affair with the much younger Deans, thus bringing to an end her marriage to Mark Herron.

The drama with music makes it appear that Deans, who is portrayed as having an abusive personality, was attempting to save Judy from herself by restricting her addiction consumption. Some sources allude to Deans using Garland for his own advantages, such as making money from the tell-all book, which followed her death. Whatever the truth, the power of the play comes out loud and clear.

This is a well written script, with many emotional highs and lows, some laughs, and, of course, some glorious vocal sounds. As the program notes indicated, we are exposed to the elegant Judy (The Man Who Got Away), the befuddled Judy (When You’re Smiling), the out-of-control Judy (Come Rain or Come Shine). And, of course, there is Judy saying goodbye emotionally emoting Over the Rainbow.

The production, under the eye of Terry Johnson, is mesmerizing.

The cast is strong. Michael Cumpsty, as Judy’s gay long-time accompanist, is compelling as the only person in Judy’s later life who appears to have her best interests at heart. Cumpsty is totally believable in the role and is an excellent pianist.

Tom Pelphrey (Mickey) walks the fine line between caring and manipulative, giving just enough smarminess to make us question whether he is a good or bad guy. Jay Russell is fine in multiple minor roles.

The star of the show is the amazing Tracie Bennett as Garland. Bennett, who is making her Broadway debut after an impressive theater, film and television, career, claims to be “an actress by definition and not a singer.” She is compelling in both capacities. She doesn’t do a Garland imitation; she inhabits the persona and soul of Judy. She compels us to believe, to accept that the real Judy is on stage. This is a fine performance, worthy of standing ovations and awards!

The on-stage musicians are excellent. They play well and support rather than draw away attention from the action.

The technical aspects of the production are top notch. William Dudley’s scene and costume designs and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting enhance the style and mood.

Capsule judgement: END OF THE RAINBOW is a compelling script that gets a top-notch production under the guidance of Terry Johnson. Tracie Bennett is superlative, inhabiting the living presence of Judy Garland. Bravo!

(In an open-ended run at the Belasco Theatre.)