‘End of the Rainbow’
By Peter Quilter
Directed by Terry Johnson
Music Director Jeffrey Saver
With Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumpsty, Erik Heger, Michael Anderson
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through April 21, 2013
Perhaps you are one of those folks who can remember what you were doing, and where you were, June 22, 1967, when the world learned that Judy Garland had at last flown too close to the sun and self-destructed. If so, you will definitely want to catch Tracie Bennett’s manic performance as the spiraling-out-of-control Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson. But what if you are not in that camp? You have heard her singing a thousand times, enjoy the familiar songbook, but were not so besotted with her and had moved on to the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison by the time of her final flameout. Bennett’s performance is still impressive to behold (see video clip above from the Broadway production).
There is nothing lovable about what the world knows of Garland’s drug- and alcohol-soaked last days. And there is nothing to love in the persona portrayed in Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow.” In fact, you are more likely to emerge from the theater with less empathy for her than you may have brought in, based on Garland’s persona of an earlier time.
The action is set in an elaborate recreation of a suite – too small by Garland’s over-the-top standards – in the Ritz hotel, London. She is in town for what turns out to be her last comeback tour, “Talk of the Town,” at a local nightclub. The back panel of William Dudley’s set nicely lifts to show her back-up band, the scene switching to the nightclub with flashing lights where her performance deteriorates night by night. Bennett’s build is as birdlike as Garland’s, and the costumes faithfully recreate the outfits she wore. There have been many impersonators, but Bennett more than imitates the familiar Garland gestures in her action-drenched performance. Onstage or not, this Garland is overwhelmed with her own identity, in constant motion, super-saturated with alcohol, amphetamines, and barbiturates, and only aware of others as they show their willingness to worship at her feet. It is nearly impossible to have empathy for this figure as she appears to have empathy for no one else. Bennett’s portrayal of manic, drug-steeped behavior is dead on; one wonders how she can perform nightly at that pitch.
Both Bennett and Michael Cumpsty (Anthony, the Scotch accompanist hired for her comeback tour) were part of the original London and New York productions of “End of the Rainbow.” Anthony represents the gay worshippers of Garland. Erik Heger is Mickey Deans, Garland’s pretty-boy last husband. Deans’ motives may not have been pure, but his efforts to keep her from her self-destructive behavior would have benefited them both. It is hard not to understand why in the end he succumbs and gives her what she craves. While love may have been Anthony’s primary motive for trying to keep her away from the destructive drugs and alcohol, he too becomes exasperated. Everyone gets burned out as she dances closer and closer to the flame.
If somehow you had never heard of a singer called Judy Garland, never knew she died of a probably accidental suicide, her death in the end would hardly come as a surprise. If nothing else, Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow” perfectly captures the vortex of manic self-destruction: the witty comments and sexual aggressiveness, as disorganization spins out of control. Director Terry Johnson maintains the pace that is almost incomprehensible to mere mortals who rely on their morning Starbucks to get their eyes open every morning. The eerie thing is that, like someone who has to live with a real-life manic, you may also be burnt out by the end of the performance. If you do not come to the theater with years of entrenched Judy admiration, you will certainly enjoy the music and admire Bennett’s unstoppable performance, but you may come out with mixed feelings about spending the evening with this version of Judy Garland.