Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 2, 2012
End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. Directed by Terry Johnson. Scenic & costume design by William Dudley. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Orchestrations by Chris Egan. Musical arrangements by Gareth Valentine. Musical direction by Jeffrey Saver. Music Coordinator by Seymour Red Press. Cast: Tracie Bennett, with Tom Pelphrey, Jay Russell, and Michael Cumpsty.
I apologize for the Wizard of Oz clichés, but they're rather unavoidable when talking about Judy Garland, aren't they? Certainly in neither titling this show nor in writing it has Peter Quilter strayed from them (he includes a rather shameless joke about the ruby slippers). And given that Garland's tightest association is still with the acclaimed and beloved 1939 film more than pretty much anything else she did in her decades-long career, which ended when she died at age 47 in 1969, it's somewhat acceptable — and perhaps even unavoidable.
But when a work contains little more than such clichés, and piles on top of them show-biz versions that were ancient when Garland was alive, it's difficult to continue to offer it the benefit of the doubt. Sad to say, that's the case with End of the Rainbow, which examines Garland's last performances in London (and, for that matter, anywhere) as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
Assuming you need to be told the story, it goes something like this: Garland (Tracie Bennett) has just become engaged to jazz musician Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) and arrived at the Ritz to prepare for her appearances in Talk of the Town. Garland adores Mickey, though she can't remember what he does or what husband he's going to be (number five, for the record), and insists she feels loved for the first time in ages. When they're not arguing, that is, which they do frequently. The majority of their fights are about work: what he wants from her, what she insists she cannot provide, and so on. But occasionally they're about pills, which Mickey deplores but Garland is convinced she needs.
There's nothing to learn from any of this; Garland's initial descent began decades before the action here does. It barely suffices as a character study, as Garland's self-introspection rarely digs deeper than "I am all sung out," and is useless as history given how late it occurs and how many details it omits (there's no mention, for example, of either of her somewhat-famous daughters). It fails as commentary on the Garland Legend, too, given the heavy-handed treatment of Quilter's few attempts down that path — most notable when Anthony spends five minutes trying to get Garland to live with him by appealing to the mystique she has to gay men like himself. No, the play doesn't even try to make this only implicit.
The only possible remaining classifications are "play with music" and "star vehicle," and both apply to some degree. If you love Garland's vocalizing, you get hefty dollops of it throughout, with a special focus on her major hits like "The Trolley Song," "The Man that Got Away," and, of course, "Over the Rainbow." You also get the benefit of a real band, with five musicians joining Cumpsty (who actually appears to be playing piano) in a series of sequences, some dream and some more definably real (and others, such as a rambling quasi-breakdown in "Come Rain or Come Shine" that split the difference to middling effect), that give Bennett a chance to split the rafters. And split them she does, with a force and vigor that suggest this British performer is right at home among Broadway's better musical actresses.
Whether she's as good at recreating Garland is another question. In a crown-shaped wig, pointed makeup, and severe costumes (by William Dudley, who also designed the overly utilitarian hotel-meets-nightclub set), she bears a distinct physical resemblance that suggests impersonation as at least a tacit goal. But whenever she opens her mouth, whether for line or lyric, what she emits is a constricted tremor of a sound that, to my ear anyway, sounds less Garland's to-the-end leathery strength than it does an in-the-vicinity approximation of a late-career Katharine Hepburn.
What she aims for as far as personality are the star's broader postures: the determination to glitter even during the darkest moments, the overt anguish of having frittered away a once-in-a-century talent, the need to be loved. Bennett excels within these constraints, and makes Garland a completely believable normal woman in these areas, to the extent that the script allows her (which, with its reliance on star stereotypes ranging from complaining about the size of the hotel room to never quite noticing the "little people," isn't much).
Unfortunately, because she lacks the color and dramatic overtones provided by Garland's deep vulnerability and fragile but palpable elegance — the things that made Garland unique — Bennett ultimately provides a one-dimensional portrayal. An effective, stamina-charged one, to be sure, but not something drenched in an irreplaceable individuality. Or, on its own terms, particularly different from what Cumpsty does as the "devoted homosexual" or what Pelphrey does as the "on-edge husband." It's playing a type professionally, no more, no less; there's nothing wrong with that, but pretending it's really Garland is stretching things.
Director Terry Johnson could perhaps have done more to highlight the moments that work and help everyone find more specific characters, but his staging, of scenes and songs alike, is solid; he's limited by what Quilter has given him. Bennett, who never passes up an opportunity to dazzle in the songs, gets the better end of the bargain, and therefore so do audiences — as long as they don't expect more than that. But when the music dies down, there's little gold at End of the Rainbow.