Or, loved her, not crazy about it.
I just saw Peter Quilter‘s Broadway-bound End of the Rainbow, which is approximately the 14,796th script written about the sad decline and premature death of Judy Garland. It would be lovely to be able to say that it’s a tremendously exciting play that offers some kind of valuable insight into Garland’s tortured psyche, but it isn’t. It’s a tired, by-the-numbers rehash of the Cliff Notes version of everything else that’s been written about Garland’s final few months, held together with a few musical numbers and some campily cheesy one-liners, with an awkwardly-narrated epilogue tacked onto the end.
The play mostly takes place in a suite at the Ritz in London in early 1969, during Garland’s turbulent five-week run at Talk of the Town, six months or so before her death, in the early stages of her engagement to Mickey Deans. We switch back and forth between scenes in the hotel suite in which she attempts to rehearse, argues with Deans and with her music director, begs for alcohol and drugs, and generally gives vent to her inner demons, and onstage scenes at Talk of the Town in which we’re given excerpts from her act. This back-and-forth continues through two acts as we watch Garland’s mental state gradually unravel, and then the actor playing the music director steps out of the play to tell the audience directly about the manner of Garland’s death – like we don’t already know – and then, finally, the actress playing Judy Garland sings Over the Rainbow, after which there’s a curtain call and everyone goes home. As a piece of writing, it’s… basic. And that’s being kind.
It is, however, a must-see. The play itself may not be particularly good, but the actress playing Judy Garland – Tracie Bennett – is wonderful, extraordinary, amazing, and a great big long list of other superlatives. Ms. Bennett is a comic character actress. Like every other member of British Equity who can do some kind of vaguely passable Lancashire accent, she’s done a stint in Coronation Street, and she’s been regularly seen in second-banana roles in sitcoms and musicals for the past twenty years at least; she’s always been reliably funny, she’s a strong singer, she’s rarely if ever given a sub-par performance (although she’s certainly sometimes been lumbered with lousy material in lousy sitcoms; for that matter, she’s lumbered with a few lousy lines here as well), but she’s never been a star. She’s someone you know you’ve seen before, but she’s not a household name, and she’s not someone you’ve regularly (or, really, ever) seen in leading roles.
That might be about to change, because this is one of those performances that people will be talking about for years. Despite the perfunctory script, Ms. Bennett gets under Garland’s skin in a way that I’ve yet to see anyone else approach. It’s not simply about her mastery of Garland’s idiosyncratic vocal mannerisms, body language, and very individual approach to musical phrasing, although her mastery of all three is total (you can see in this clip how different Ms. Bennett’s own speaking voice is from the voice she uses as Garland). The uncanny thing, here, is Ms. Bennett’s understanding of what I suppose we can loosely call ‘star quality’, and her apparent ability to either summon it or switch it off at will as the scene demands. The script gives us a needy, self-indulgent woman jonesing after attention, vodka and pills; Ms. Bennett offers a sharp, mercurial Star-with-a-capital-S who is fully aware of – and addicted to – the attention that comes with her persona and her position, but who is slowly being destroyed by the sheer mental effort that goes into summoning that kind of charisma. Not an original idea, particularly – you’ll get something along those lines from any Garland bio – but the sheer force of Ms. Bennett’s performance is astonishing. She’s thrilling, mesmerising, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her whether she’s hurling a fruit-bowl across a bedroom or belting out Just in Time as if her life depended on it, and she deserves every bit of the considerable acclaim she’s receiving for her performance.
Oh yes, there are some other people in it too. Hilton McRae as Garland’s gay pianist/musical director has a nice line in charming sarcasm and makes his character’s genuine, unconditional love for her both clear and touching. Norman Bowman’s Mickey Deans is possibly a little too sympathetic. Robert Maskell does nice work in three bit-parts. The direction and design are competent but uninspiring, and there’s a terrific six-piece band under the supervision of Gareth Valentine. But as much as she may deny it in interviews, this is the Tracie Bennett Show. She’s giving the performance of her career, and her playwright is left trailing in her dust.