Tracie Bennett and Michael Cumpsty in <i>End of the Rainbow</i>, written by Peter Quilter and directed by Terry Johnson, running at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre through April 21.
Tracie Bennett and Michael Cumpsty in End of the Rainbow, written by Peter Quilter and directed by Terry Johnson, running at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre through April 21.
© Craig Schwartz
For over a year, Los Angelinos have heard hosannas about Tracie Bennett's Drama Desk-winning/Tony-nominated performance as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow. Now, she has brought her stirring portrayal to the West Coast and has lit the Ahmanson Theater ablaze.

It's 1968, and the legendary starlet is far from the end of the rainbow — she is at the end of her rope. Years of drug and alcohol abuse have more than taken their toll, and though she has the love of a new fiancé, former club owner Mickey Deans (Erik Heger), and a revitalized concert run in London, Judy's addictions, poor heath, and financial woes are crashing down on her. Mickey's drug-withholding — then dispensing when it suits him — only accelerate to Judy's out-of-control lifestyle. A former colleague, piano player Anthony (Michael Cumpsty, who was Tony-nominated for this role) arrives, hoping to become a beacon. But is Judy capable of being saved? Since history reveals that Garland will die a year and a half later of a overdose, the angel of death hangs over the entire evening.

Bennett's complex performance encapsulates all the talent and courage that kept Judy moving forward despite obstacles that would have caused many to retreat. She reveals the beauty of Judy's talent and also the ugliness she unleashes upon others due to exhaustion, substance abuse, and years of getting away with prima donna behavior, sans ramifications. Bennett's Judy is an infuriating woman, her own worst enemy, but she exposes just enough of that rainbow magic to make people (Anthony, Mickey, the audience who applaud even when she gives an erratic, doped-up performance) want to nurture her. Bennett's singing captures all of Judy's attributes: the belt that shakes the rafters, the tremulous inflections that make her seem like she's about to crumble, the bombastic hand gestures. It's an intense performance that's too invested to be insultingly called a mimic. It's an inhabitation.

Cumpsty is a calming force as a proxy for the gay community. He even addresses himself as part of the "we" that cherished Judy through the years. With his musical Scottish accent, he evokes a warm, loving presence. Heger is more of a cipher as Mickey, but this works in the play's favor. It's never clear if the lug truly adores his soon-to-be wife or sees her as a fixer-upper investment that's quickly becoming a money pit. Mickey consistently chooses the easiest route, with no concern for consequences.

Director Terry Johnson mixes reality with fragments of Judy's scattered mind. Audiences are never certain what's really happening. Though most of the musical numbers (including standards "When You're Smiling" and "Just in Time") are set on the London stage where Judy performs, the first act ends in a hotel room, with Judy singing "The Man That Got Away" alone to herself, backed up by her orchestra. It's a break in the sense of reality that had been fostered, but it works because of Judy's mental state at the moment.

The play itself is a brave work. Quilter penned Judy at her worst; even her performances on the London stage are tumultuous. This is an idol crashing into pieces for two hours, with no flashbacks to happier times. He infuses the text with humor and musical numbers so that the evening is not maudlin, but he isn't afraid to have audiences hate her at times.

William Dudley's costume's feature smart pantsuits that show-off Judy's sense of style but still illustrate how physically frail she was in 1968. His drawing room set with a French oeuvre seems like a palatial room at Versailles, which adds irony to Garland's complaints that the room is chintzy. The back wall lifts seamlessly to reveal the orchestra. Orchestrator Chris Egan and musical arranger Gareth Valentine capture the brassy world of Judy on stage and musically demonstrate her breakdown with the chaotic cacophony in "Come Rain or Come Shine."

The Judy Garland we adore will live on as long as The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis can be screened, but the inexhaustible Tracie Bennett fearlessly shows Judy's other side with all the bravado and rage of a woman running on empty but still driving too fast.