The immediate question that must be asked when discussing End of the Rainbow is whether or not it will have an appeal to those who are not devoted fans of Judy Garland. The play is set at a very particular time in her life, December, 1968. It’s no secret that Garland died in June of the following year at age 47, so what we see is her last gasp of hope for a comeback. She’s playing the London nightclub called The Talk of the Town, with her pianist Anthony, and her manager/fiancé Mickey Deans in tow.
For those who are familiar with the story of the child star who was kept hyped up on pills by the studio and her own mother, it’s not necessary to hear the tale again. My question is whether or not those unfamiliar with the diva—and there’s a whole generation who’ve never heard of her—will find the discussions on the topic tedious. The recitation of her film credits also seems stuck into the dialogue to give her credence.
This is not a musical, as was lamented by several audience members who thought they’d come to see number after number, all now classics, made famous by Garland. Instead, we only get about half a dozen songs spaced out during the show. The rest of the time, we watch Judy go further into decline, much to Anthony’s distress, while Mickey Deans grows increasingly evil and destructive. There’s a point at which the dialogue becomes more tiresome than heart wrenching; and nowadays, when stars have created a revolving door of drug abuse, alcohol dependency, and rehab, it’s hard to remember that addiction and despair were not a normal part of a performer’s press releases.
But if all this can be set aside, what’s left to admire is Tracie Bennett’s glorious tour de force. She wisely doesn’t mimic Garland, but rather captures the quavering voice and distinctive speech inflections; the legs wide apart stance; the arm that shoots up into the air when she performs; and of course, the singing. The only possible criticism of Bennett’s voice might be that she sounds too good for Garland at this stage of her life, kind of like Liza in Cabaret. But when Bennett lets us see a manic performer on so much speed she can’t stand still to belt out a number, she nails it. Yes, this is what it must have been like at the end of Garland’s great career. In addition, Bennett ably captures the wit and the kindness for which the singer was famous, along with the neediness and the ugly outbursts. She is just superb.
Michael Cumpsty (above) is an actor’s actor, and as Anthony, he acts as narrator and also a kind of Greek chorus for the audience. It’s no small feat that he is able to effectively use a Scottish burr and still be perfectly understandable. New York audiences who have seen Cumpsty perform both on and off Broadway throughout the years know that they are in good hands when he’s onstage. I didn’t know he played the piano, as he does here, but it doesn’t surprise me. After all, this is an actor who is equally at ease in both musicals and serious drama, not to mention his award winning turns in Shakespearian roles. If you want to know how this acting thing is done, just watch Cumpsty.
Tom Pelphrey (above) has a pretty thankless role as Mickey Deans. As soon as you hear him hurling homosexual slurs at Anthony, you know he’s done for as a sympathetic character. Yet he manages to convey what it is that made Judy Garland eventually take him for her fifth husband. He’s attractive underneath what I hope is just an awful wig, and he lets us see that Deans was just as hopeful that he could escape his past as was Garland. There is love and light and enthusiasm in his portrayal, which makes Deans’s fall to the dark side all the more chilling. He did make a rookie mistake, which I trust was a once in a lifetime gaff: he picked up the phone a moment before it actually rang.
I don’t know what more director Terry Johnson could have done with Peter Quilter’s script. The play does tend to get stuck on repetition, and it drags quite often. But when the actors are uniformly excellent, it’s generally the man at the helm who has helped them achieve such high standards. William Dudley’s scenic and costume design are spot on. Bennett is gorgeous for her first entrance, in a black St. John style knit suit with brilliants at the collar. The pearls are just right, and Bennett’s knock ‘em dead legs are showcased in black stockings and high heels.
The red dress and boa for her stage performance neatly capture the moment. Garland’s descent is emphasized by the increasing shabbiness of her state of dress and undress.
I’ve never been to the Ritz in London, but I’m sure it looks exactly as shown, all white provincial furniture with lots of Rococo gold everywhere you look. Incidentally when you enter the Belasco Theatre, take a moment to look around. This classic old house, complete with stained glass, is one of a kind. And who knows, you may just see the ghost of impresario David Belasco himself, who is said to haunt the place.
I can’t predict that End of the Rainbow will have legs; it all depends on whether or not the faithful come out in force, and if those who are not Judy Garland aficionados are intrigued enough to buy a ticket. But this I know for sure: check out the bios of the performers onstage, and you will see the kind of dedication and time it takes to get to star in a Broadway play. To all the moms who’ve asked me, “Don’t you think my daughter should be an actress/singer/star,” I say sure, if she’s willing to put in years and years of hard work, getting dissed on a regular basis, and being professional enough to ignore the idiots whose phones ring repeatedly throughout performances.
Because sorry folks, it ain’t like Smash. You don’t step off the bus and into a leading role on the Great White Way. If you’re really lucky and you devote yourself, you might get to see the rainbow that is stardom. But don’t be surprised if it’s not exactly the way you thought it would be.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
End of the Rainbow
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Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.