- Last Updated: 12:18 AM, April 4, 2012
- Posted: 10:40 PM, April 2, 2012
END OF THE RAINBOW
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.; 212-239-6200.
Big Broadway performances are polished, sometimes to a fault: They’re perfectly enjoyable, but they often lack a certain unpredictable battiness.
Not so with Tracie Bennett’s tour de force in “End of the Rainbow,” which opened last night at the Belasco. By the time she reaches the finish line, you’re almost as drained as she is.
And 150 percent is the least Bennett can give — after all, she’s playing Judy Garland a few months before her death, when the star teetered on the brink of self-annihilation. It’s a part that requires full emotional and physical commitment, and the willingness to make the audience uncomfortable. Rather than turn in another technically fine, ultimately safe Garland impersonation, Bennett gives us the Garland mystique.
This is all the more key since Peter Quilter’s West End import isn’t very good. It’s a decent vehicle for a drunk driver.
“End of the Rainbow” takes place in London in December 1968, when the 46-year-old Garland embarked on a five-week engagement at the Talk of the Town. The play goes back and forth between Garland’s hotel room and the nightclub, where she performs with manic, desperate intensity — a contemporary witness noted of the actual show, “This was all about having a whale of a time at night, and to hell with the morning.”
“End of the Rainbow,” directed by Terry Johnson (“La Cage aux Folles”), gives us those mornings, when an increasingly strung-out Garland literally gets on all fours to beg for Ritalin.
The one holding the supplies is her soon-to-be fifth husband, the much younger Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey, appropriately rough and arrogant). Reluctant at first, he starts supplying Garland when he realizes his meal ticket can’t perform without pills (“grown-up candy”) and booze.
The singer’s gay pianist, Anthony (a warm, dry Michael Cumpsty), tries to tether her to reality. A devoted Scotsman with the instincts of a St. Bernard, he wants only to take care of her.
But Garland’s in way too deep at this point, and she knows it. Bennett perfectly captures her savage wit and the violence of her changing moods — when she tells Deans, “I decide if and when I do shows,” a scary look of quasi-demonic anger flashes on her face.
Bennett doesn’t give a note-for-note imitation, even if she’s particularly good with physical mannerisms. Instead, she makes us understand the combustible mix of ego and self-doubt that made Garland such a fascinating performer, simultaneously professional and unhinged.
“Come Rain or Come Shine,” driven by hyperactive bongos, is textbook in that respect. Bennett leaps and jumps, headbangs and buckles like a marionette on speed. It’s so big that it’s almost embarrassing. And, of course, you can’t stop watching.