Judy Garland. The name alone fills a canvas of emotions ranging from prodigy to pathos. Film star, chanteuse, addict. These elements of the late entertainer’s life are the subject of a new and provocative Broadway play, "End of the Rainbow." Written by British playwright Peter Quilter, the play began life in London’s West End last year and was followed by a successful reworking at the Guthrie Theatre in this country. It opens at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on April 2.
Quilter has set the play’s focus on Miss Garland’s disastrous engagement at London’s cabaret club, “The Talk of the Town,” with a series of December 1968 concert dates featuring a wrecked Judy Garland just beginning the last six months of her life. The play shifts between Garland’s suite at The Ritz Hotel and the stage of “The Talk of the Town.” This is not your grandmother’s Judy Garland as immortalized in the role of “Dorothy” in 1939’s "The Wizard of Oz." This play presents to the public the monstrous and all-too-common face of substance abuse.
In this play, British actress Tracie Bennett virtually is Judy Garland. Physically and vocally, she serves the play as a medium channeling Garland’s vocal brilliance, charisma and desperation. Bennett makes up three-quarters of the play’s explosive punch. This is a star turn in the making – a performance to be talked about between theatre connoisseurs (and certainly Tony voters) for decades to come. Although Quilter’s script is at times trite in its attempt to capture Garland’s bipolar shifts from comedy to biting desperation, Bennett escalates the simple dialogue exponentially with the throw of an ingenious catalogue of pitiful tortured glances and an agonized gait softened only by the next dose of Ritalin or whiskey.
Audiences routinely remark that they are very jarred to witness Bennett’s conjuring of Garland. Bennett’s vocal cords clone the famous belt and timbre of the late singer, a quality that left the audience virtually séance speechless.
As in reality, this Garland is on her last leg. With a microphone cord constantly tripping her, lyrics evading memory, a voice that is cigarette scarred and an ensemble of sycophants and gigolos pouring out false promises of love and security, this work in recipe-perfect form lists the ingredients that yield the downfall of many substance abusers. At curtain rise, Judy Garland is on her fifth marriage to half-her-age club performer Mickey Deans, played with fresh-faced yet chaotic manipulation by actor Tom Pelphrey. In a quixotic attempt to single-handedly curb Garland’s addiction, Deans vainly hides her pills and booze only to present them in a last ditch effort to get the star out of bed and onto the stage. In today’s parlance, Deans was an enabler.
Quilter captures the essence of celebrity addiction as Garland admonishes that she can obtain any substance of her choosing with the mere flick of an autograph pen. Most endearing of relationships is depicted between Garland and her gay pianist, Anthony, played by seasoned actor Michael Cumpsty. Cumpsty’s teddy bear affect beckons Garland to a simple life by the sea, a life devoid of singing and drugs. Cumpsty’s promises stir the audience with the hope that the addictions – and yes, there are two – will be exorcised with his profound, if not physical, love.
Although the play quickly and indeed very graphically drills in the unbearable and nightmarish world of Garland’s substance abuse through onstage vomiting, colorful swearing and the roller coaster workings of an addict in denial, it very subtly reveals that Garland was also addicted to the love of her audiences. We leave the theatre with the disturbing and guilty feeling that we have just witnessed a family drug intervention gone wrong. After all, Garland was a virtual family member to millions of adoring audiences from her rise at MGM in the 1930s to her death in 1969.
For those who have attempted to intervene on behalf of an addicted loved one, tread cautiously with this "Rainbow." This work, though brilliant in performance and intent, hangs all the ugliness, violence and betrayal of addiction over the footlights. The director, Terry Johnson, captures the thesis in a final stage vision: Garland bedecked in torn nylons with a bruised cheek, yet wearing ruby red stilettos and still questioning in her signature tune, “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow – why, oh, why can’t I?” As the curtain descends and the tune evaporates, we are left one parting shot – the reality that Dorothy ever came to this.
"End of the Rainbow" opened April 2 at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., New York. Tickets are available through Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.