End of the Rainbow
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
April 4, 2012
The first question you must ask of a play is: Why this play now? Unfortunately, I have no idea why the producers and creators of End of the Rainbow have deemed this show, about the addiction-filled final months of Judy Garland, as remotely necessary or timely. There does not seem to be any sort of message, no moral, and in fact, no real development of story or character. So why this play now? The answer seems to lie solely in the fact that Tracie Bennett does an amazing—and when I say amazing I do mean AMAZING—embodiment of Judy.
It’s 1968 and Judy Garland, along with new fiancé/manager Mickey Deans and accompanist Anthony, is in London for yet another comeback concert—a five-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub. There are problems from the get go—Judy’s addicted to pills and booze and doesn’t always want to perform, Anthony and Mickey have nothing but dislike for one another and Judy and Mickey are having a tumultuous, whirlwind romance. Plus Judy has no money…and lots of debts.
That’s really all there is to it. As my companion commented at intermission, it’s like it’s based on the Wikipedia article for Judy Garland. While there are some minor incidents throughout, Peter Quilter’s uneven, heavily expositional script lacks any real dramatic climax, character development or dramatic conflict (they start off squabbling and they end squabbling and there’s plenty of squabbling in between—but these squabbles do not a conflict make). Interspersed among the squabbling scenes in Judy’s hotel room are moments of Judy on stage, where, as in real-life, she gives amazing performances singing with incredible gusto, charisma and energy or she utterly bombs (from pills or lack of pills).
I must confess that, as someone in my mid-twenties, I do not have the same nostalgic love for Judy that seemed to be the main reason many people around me were absolutely enthralled with the show. I went in knowing that Judy Garland was, in addition to being a movie actress, a powerhouse of a performer, the mother of Liza and Lorna, addicted to pills since she was made to take them as a girl; that she died young, and that her later performances were, let us say, unpredictable. I left having seen all of this affirmed on stage, but learning very little else. Except that she had an incredibly sharp wit—the script does contain some delightfully clever, wicked lines. But what I missed—what I wanted—was depth.
At intermission, everyone was abuzz with how Tracie Bennett is surely going to win the Tony. And well she might; she delivers one dynamo of a performance as Judy. Bennett has exquisite comic timing, amazing physicality and a killer voice; she is constantly reacting, she’s bold, gutsy, bawdy and funny and has the energy of an amphetamine addict. And her impression is dead on. But it’s just that—an impression. The performance (and the script and direction) never transcends caricature; we never feel any empathy for her. She is technically doing everything phenomenally, she has the stamina of an Olympic athlete on stage, but the heart is missing.
Tom Pelphrey, as sleazy Mickey Deans, gives one of the weakest performances I have ever seen on Broadway—full of slamming and stomping and shouting and every sort of indicating. Pelphrey is not singly at fault for this: Quilter’s script has made Mickey the most 2-dimensional and boring of characters—he’s villainized throughout by Anthony and never given a chance to defend himself. Michael Cumpsty does a fine but bland job as pianist Anthony and Jay Russell brings a nice sense of play and fun to the various smaller parts, from BBC announcer to Assistant Stage Manager.
Terry Johnson’s staging, particularly of the concert numbers, works well, but the tone is unclear. Are we just supposed to be laughing with/at them? As an audience member, I never felt engrossed in the action, and certainly never was moved by it (and, here’s the thing, no matter how much of a mess she was, I think we could still feel something for her. People certainly did for the real Judy. Why can’t we feel that empathy in this show?). William Dudley’s set and costume design are perfectly suitable, save for the fact that when the hotel window curtains are drawn, the street appears to be a giant black-and-white blown-up photograph; but Dudley’s fun dresses, full of boas and sequins and glitz, more than make up for the one odd choice.
I went to End of the Rainbow primarily because, as an actor, I wanted to see a really great performance. And I did! But, for me at least, it wasn’t enough.