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End of the Rainbow

Tracie Bennett gives a crowd-thrilling performance as the legendary singer Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's bioplay. logo
Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett, and
Tom Pelphrey in End of the Rainbow
(© Carol Rosegg)
If the audiences at Peter Quilter's bioplay about the late Judy Garland, End of the Rainbow, now at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, were willing to stay all night, one senses its star, Tracie Bennett, would be willing to be there with them and give them another scene or sing another song.

Indeed, it's hard to say what's more impressive about Bennett's crowd-thrilling work: her extraordinary commitment to the role of Garland or her unbelievable stamina. During the course of this two-hour-plus work, she's onstage practically every minute, navigating the star's frequent mood swings -- as well as belting out more than a half dozen of Garland's signature tunes with a voice that can probably be heard all the way out onto 44th Street.

In Quilter's scenario -- set just a few months before her death -- Garland is caught between two very different men in her life, as she paces around her posh London hotel suite (nicely designed by William Dudley). She's also facing particularly desperate straits -- trying unsuccessfully to shake a lifelong addiction to booze and pills and terrified that she's letting down her public during a grueling five-week run of concerts, leading to bouts of manic, erratic behavior.

In one corner is Mickey Deans (the appropriately handsome Tom Pelphrey), her much-younger fiance of just a few weeks, who is less than fully equipped trying to actually manage Garland. Having weaned her off the substances that would eventually take her life, he proves all too willing to reverse course once Garland threatens to halt her concert run, which will provide the income she needs to start paying off her debts.

Mickey's flip side -- in every possible way -- is her pianist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), reunited with Garland for the first time in five years. A gay man who is in love with Garland, mostly platonically, perhaps slightly sexually, and decidedly wholeheartedly, he is determined to keep Garland clean, no matter the consequences.

Frustrated by her relationship with -- and attraction -- to the hot-tempered, seemingly opportunistic Mickey, he eventually proposes a life for the two of them far from the limelight. As one senses Anthony knows deep down, though, it's a life she could never adjust to, even if she was willing to try. Cumpsty's work, not just in this scene but throughout the show, is remarkably complex and among the finest performances this actor has ever given.

For those unfamiliar with Garland's biography (and there must be somebody out there in the dark), Quilter sprinkles in -- not always elegantly -- references to her fraught relationship with her mother, her early days at MGM, a few of her more notable films, and her marriages to Sid Luft and Vincente Minnelli. (Oddly, and I think wrongly, Garland never once mentions any of her children!)

It's also true that what Bennett has been asked to do, under the direction of Tony Award winner Terry Johnson, may sometimes seem like mere impersonation -- and she imitates some of Garland's most well-known characteristics, including the famed raised arm gesture and cross-legged stance, much like many who have played the legendary icon. (Arguably, others have done it better.) But it's her undeniable attempt to fully convey the tortured Garland that separates this performance from so many that have come before.

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