Monday, May 14, 2012

End of the Rainbow

End of the Rainbow, at Broadway's Belasco Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I'm old enough to remember when The Wizard of Oz was a highly anticipated television event. Before VCRs, that was the way to see it and it only happened once a year. (Those flying monkeys still freak me out.)

As an adult, I saw Judy Garland in a couple of other movies. I knew the basics: her many marriages, her children, how she'd become hooked on drugs and alcohol and died too young. But the image planted in my brain was Dorothy Gale - a teenager in pigtails with a cute little dog, dreaming of a life beyond her Kansas farm.

So watching British actress Tracie Bennett portray Garland at the end of her life in End of the Rainbow was devastating. Bennett is delivering an amazing performance as a vulnerable, difficult woman in the throes of addiction. Unfortunately the play, by Peter Quilter, is not as good as she is. She and Garland deserve better.

End of the Rainbow takes place mainly in a room at the Ritz Hotel in London in 1968. Garland, accompanied by her fiance Mickey Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey, is poised to give a series of concerts in hopes of making another comeback. Michael Cumpsty is Anthony, a pianist who's helping her prepare and who also represents Garland's legion of gay fans.

The interaction between the three of them is wrenching. Bennett's Garland is demanding and impulsive and stubborn. Pelphrey's Deans grows more and more frustrated as he tries to ensure she's in good enough shape to sing because they desperately need the money. Cumpsty's Anthony is protective of Garland and wary of Deans' motives.

Bennett is riveting but some of the things that Quilter has her do in the play seemed over the top. We know Garland is a mess. We know she's self-destructive, that she needs alcohol and pills to help her get through a concert. Unfortunately, there's a point at which all of this becomes so degrading that it felt exploitative.

I wish the play had offered more insight into Garland's life, how she reached this point. There are a few hints in the dialogue. She mentions the pills that she and other young performers were given at MGM to help them get through a grueling filming schedule. I wanted more details like that and less dwelling on the train wreck, no matter how well Bennett portrays it.

Cumpsty is appealing as Anthony, who truly cares about her and watches what's going on with dismay. At one point Deans accuses Garland's gay fans of showering her with more adulation the  more pathetic she grows, as if they were were responsible for her decline. Maybe it was the character and not the playwright speaking but that was unfair.

The way Bennett's Garland manages to pull herself together during the concert scenes was a highlight for me. You got a glimmer of what a captivating performer she'd been, her is evident. Listening to her sing "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, her youthful voice now raspy, was heartbreaking.

Judy Garland was defined by her early film roles - and perhaps trapped by them, too. I'll admit I was teary hearing "Over the Rainbow." I know there have been other child actors whose lives have ended sadly but maybe because The Wizard of Oz was part of my childhood, this one felt saddest of all.


Dale said...

Tracie Bennett's performance was definitely searing but I know what you mean about the play itself, it could have used more insight. Still loved it though, in London and in NYC.

Esther said...

Hey Dale, great to hear from you! Did you detect any changes in her performance between London and NYC? I agree, it's a devastating performance. I just wish Tracie had been given more to work with.

Dale said...

There wasn't a lot of difference between NY and London that I picked up on Esther although it was about a year apart if memory serves. Tracie's performance was searing in both but as you've said, if she had more to work with...

I also took in "The Lyons" which I enjoyed and "Other Desert Cities" which I loved. Getting to see Stockard Channing (in anything) and Judith Light (who I well underestimated) chew the scenery was amazing!