Judy Garland is seen around the world as one of the greatest performers of all time - from The Wizard of Oz to Meet Me in St. Louis, her career has been seen by millions. Along with her films, however, Judy’s off screen life was also seen and judged by millions. Stricken with pills, alcohol, sex, and depression, her life was a struggle; a struggle that has now been transformed into a play by Peter Quilter. Headlining the piece is newcomer Tracie Bennett, who transforms into Judy Garland with ease and sophistication. However, much like Judy’s real life, End of the Rainbow is scattered, oddly put together, and is tragic to watch. A weak script, poor design, and an unclear focus leaves the audience unsettled and unsure as to how to feel about the life of Judy Garland - the exact opposite of what the piece is trying to accomplish.
Beginning only a short time before her tragic death, End of the Rainbow tells the story of Judy Garland’s final performances in London and the events that surrounded it. It is time for husband number five, Mickey Deans, to step up to the plate and show his love for Judy. Serving has both her fiancé and manager, Mickey has booked Judy at a hip spot in London for a few week run to prove that she is back and better than ever, which appears to be true. Fresh off of pills and booze, Judy is ready to take on the town with her long time pianist friend, Anthony; however, as the relapses begin, her performances suffer, and money runs tight, Mickey is forced to let her slip into her old habits. Before long the pills and booze are flying high, and there is no hope of saving America’s “it girl,” Judy Garland.
Ever since her death, impressionists and drag queens around the world have tried to become Judy Garland. None, however, have ever mastered it quite like Tracie Bennett (making her Broadway debut) has - from speech to movements, she has transformed into the legend. When playing someone addicted to drugs and alcohol, it is extremely easy to break away from reality and play a stereotype - the crazy loud one that cannot talk or stand correctly. The truth is never lost in Bennett’s portrayal - Judy remains human. Bennett transforms herself so deeply, honestly, and moving that she is just remarkable to watch. Within five seconds, it is clear has to why she has been with this role for quite some time, and has several award nominations to go with it. Judy is never judged or criticized, but rather loved and adored by the insanely talented Tracie Bennett. Playing the melody to Judy’s life is her admirer, friend, and pianist Anthony - portrayed by Michael Cumpsty (Sunday in the Park with George). Cumpsty does a lovely job starring opposite Bennett; their scenes together are moving and full of life - he is the calm to her crazy. Cumpsty makes Anthony the everyman; he says and thinks the way most fans and admirers of Judy’s talk and act. Anthony only wants what is best for Judy, unlike the latest fling, Mickey Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey (television’s Guiding Light). Pelphrey’s soap opera past shows in a negative way on stage - lacking chemistry with the other performers and over acting each moment. His performance was one level, usually fake angry, therefore, never allowing the audience to connect or feel anything towards his character; a true problem when the audience should care even a little bit about the man that Judy loves. This lackluster performance brought down the production and further highlighted the weakness in Peter Quilter’s script.
While Jersey Boys is a huge success and Master Class shines with each revival, the key to their success lies within the simple fact that they know what they are - one a musical and the other a drama. Peter Quilter (Duets) could not seem to fully land on one or the other, hence creating a play with music that is choppy and awkward. Constantly breaking the flow of the dialogue with long drawn out concert medleys, it was hard to connect to the characters with all of the song and dance. Is it a comedy, musical, drama, or all three? This unanswered question left director Terry Johnson (La Cage aux Folles, latest revival) and his team confused as to how to stage the piece. With a scenic design (William Dudley, Amadeus) that felt uneven and clustered, lighting design (Christopher Akerlind, Porgy and Bess) that was a never gelling mix of play and concert, and sound design (Gareth Owen, A Little Night Music) with unrealistic sounds and awful fades, the whole production felt rushed and poorly planned. The whole piece just came across as unsure - no one fully knew what to do with the piece that sat in front of them. Maybe some of Judy’s pills and booze would have helped them all out.
While presenting itself as deeply moving and sentimental, End of the Rainbow is more awkward and confusing. A poor script can sometimes be saved by a stellar production team; however, this time around, the team was also confused and lost resulting in a poorly put together piece of theatre. One can only hope that Liza was told to skip this one! While this is disappointing, one thing about the whole show holds true, Tracie Bennett is a star! Her portrayal of Judy Garland is truthful and full of life, a performance that could even earn her a Tony Award nomination!