By Darlene Donloe
There are very few plays that leave an indelible mark and stay with me even into the next day.
End of the Rainbow, a musical drama by Peter Quilter about the life of Judy Garland in the months leading up to her death in 1969 at age 47, is one of those plays.
It’s powerful, engaging, tragic, entertaining, vibrant and sad. But, most of all, it’s a must-see!!
The show, directed by Terry Johnson, is currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through Apr. 21. This, after a Sydney premiere in 2005, a London stretch and a Broadway production, which opened in 2012.
Tracie Bennett plays Garland. Tracie Bennett is extraordinary! Tracie Bennett is brilliant! Tracie Bennett totally inhabits the persona of Judy Garland – and that’s no small feat.
Playing Garland looks exhausting. So, it stands to reason that actually being Judy Garland must have taken on behemoth proportions.
The play takes place in a London Hotel suite where she is staying while mounting one of her many comeback performances. It also takes place at the nightclub, Talk Of The Town.
To its credit, the show doesn’t play like it’s an imitation of Garland. Bennett’s performance, instead, goes deeper than that. It’s a full, consuming portrayal of the legendary artist, who starred in the ever popular “Wizard of Oz”, was the wife of director Vincent Minnelli and had two children Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli.
Bennett’s voice, gait and quirky movements, even how she strikes a pose and holds a cigarette, are spot-on!
Fans and non-fans will both find this musical interesting and eye-opening. It’s like being a voyeur – eavesdropping on private conversations and private moments that an audience shouldn’t be privy to. It’s sometimes better not to know much about the personal life of an idol. Not everything is pretty. Garland’s life was anything but pretty. The behind the curtains look at her life revealed a woman who was surprisingly weak and lacked self-confidence, even though she was loved by throngs of admirers. She doubted herself on many levels – even the ability to be loved and to be worthy of love. But, most of all, it was about the addictions to alcohol and pills that would eventually be her downfall. She needed them to get up and needed them to come down. She didn’t feel she was at her best on stage unless she was accompanied by said alcohol and pills.
Included in this story is her manager, fiancé and last husband (her fifth), Mickey Deans, played by Erik Heger and her trusty pianist on the current run Anthony, played by Michael Cumpsty. Miles Anderson joins the fray as both a BBC interviewer and a porter/AMS. Cumpsty is sensational in his role and Heger is sufficiently sleazy in his role. Anderson holds the course.
Deans and Anthony whether they like it or not, have signed up to watch over the falling star – literally! Deans actually enlisted, but Anthony is somehow recruited to do more than play the piano.
Anthony, who is openly gay, doesn’t trust or like Deans. Deans isn’t too crazy about Anthony. But, they both have a common goal of keeping Garland on her feet and in shape to fulfill her performance contract.
Along the way, there are several musical performances at the Talk of the Town. When
Bennett opens her mouth to sing – it’s magical. She bolts out a number of Garland hits, including ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ ‘Man That Got Away’ and, finally, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’
Actually, when she speaks, she’s equally enchanting talking about her famous friends, how she bemoans looking like her mother, how she was forced to take pills in order to perform, her previous husbands and her stint with MGM. Every one of the aforementioned gets ripped. It’s clear that Judy Garland was a hot mess. But, in her defense, she didn’t become that completely on her own.
At one point in the show Garland says of her audience, “I gave them everything. There’s nothing left.”
William Dudley’s set design and costume design are more than effective. Apparently, he replicated Garland’s actual costumes. Kudos to Dudley whose set changes from the hotel suite to the nightclub to the radio station happens with relative ease. The band is tight and on target.
End of the Rainbow, by Peter Quilter, directed brilliantly by Terry Johnson and starring Bennett, Heger, Anderson and Cumpsty, is an exquisite production.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t know), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), End of the Rainbow gets an E (excellent).
End of the Rainbow, Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 1 and 6:30 p.m.; no performance on Mondays; through April 21; added 2 p.m. performance on Thur., April 4 and 18; no 6:30 p.m. performance on Sun., March 24, Apr. 7 and 21; Tickets: $20-$110; 213 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.