The star (Tracie Bennett), playwright (Peter Quilter) and director (Terry Johnson) of the Tony Award nominated End of the Rainbow are all Brits, and this Judy Garland bio-play is appropriately set in London. After a series of show biz and personal setbacks, Garland sought a career reboot there in 1968. The action takes place in Garland’s suite (which, the diva repeatedly gripes, is too munchkin sized) at the Ritz Hotel and the Talk of the Town nightclub, with the sets convincingly designed by William Dudley. Although this is the sizzling sixties at the swinging London town of Sgt. Peppers and the Rolling Stones, Garland — who’d become a movie star 30 years earlier in Love Finds Andy Hardy and The Wizard of Oz – still commands a loyal following.
But offstage — and sometimes on- — the oft-married Garland is beset by personal demons, bedeviled by financial problems and relationship woes. Worst of all, Garland is in the grips of alcoholism and an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates that greatly heighten her torment, whether performing in public before a nightclub or radio audience or in the privacy of her quarters.
The gay icon’s fifth husband to be, Mickey Deans (Erik Heiger), is a former club owner and jazz pianist who seeks to control Judy’s substance abuse — and possibly the out-of-control Garland herself. It’s interesting that towards the end of her life Garland hooked up with a beau who bore the same first name as Mickey Rooney, her co-star in nine Andy Hardy movies. Was this handsome lounge singer a dozen years younger than Garland really in love with her or using Judy as his meal ticket?
The star’s gay pianist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), thinks so, and there is even an allusion to Mickey’s writing a book about Garland in order to cash in (indeed, Deans co-authored 1972’s Weep No More, My Lady). As Anthony and Mickey duel over Garland’s well-being, performances and affections, there’s an exchange about Judy’s gay fans that’s brief but intriguing.
The self-absorbed Garland is alternately touching, lusty, witty, desperate and pathetic during the offstage scenes at the Ritz. While trodding the boards at the Talk of the Town, accompanied (when they can follow her!) by a live five piece band, the onetime superstar alternates between the commanding stage presence of a truly immense talent and a drug addled performer one step away from becoming a has been, as the years and decades of substance abuse catch up with her, along with an unfulfilled private life.
Bennett’s Garland is often salty; she slings some humorous zingers about her sex life (or lack of) with husband Vincent Minnelli, and more. (In the play there’s little if any mention of Liza, the daughter she had with this director.) In the interests of full disclosure this reviewer/film historian should reveal he is no expert in all things Judy, but having said that it seems that Bennett does a superb job incarnating — rather than merely “impersonating” — a 46-ish year old Garland. Bennett, who’s the right age for the role, seems to capture and express Judy’s mannerisms and movements, minus any trace of Tracie’s English accent. The actress also looks remarkably like Garland, who in her post-Dorothy years was no conventional beauty. Most importantly, Bennett can belt out a tune worthy of the character she is inhabiting and depicting. Bennett’s portrayal is nothing short of uncanny.
End of the Rainbow shares a problem with other biopics/bioplays that portray the later years of actual historical personages, such as the 2000 film Pollock starring Ed Harris as action painter Jackson Pollock. The playwright does not provide enough back story for viewers unfamiliar with the subjects being depicted to explain their self destructive behavior. In Quilter’s script there is only a very brief allusion to Judy’s youth that explains where her drug habit began, but there needs to be a bit more info for the uninitiated and younger auds — I mean, Garland became a star back in the 1930s and died more than 40 years ago.
Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics of Judy’s signature tune, “Over the Rainbow” and other songs in the beloved 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz (a blockbuster spin off was just released) was a socialist who was later blacklisted. In that spirit, it would have been interesting to pursue the angle of Louis B. Mayer, MGM and even Judy’s mom mercilessly exploiting the labor of this phenomenal child artist, using uppers and downers to squeeze every drop of talent and sweat out of her during her waking moments. Indeed, this lifelong drug addiction enabled the studio powers that be to control the singer/actress part of her life, and arguably to ruin the rest. Although this aspect of exploitation is raised vis-à-vis the Mickey Deans character, and how he comes to cope with her addictions to love and substances, the playwright could have more fully explored this theme in Rainbow.
I mean, how is a star of screen, clubs, live concerts, television and recordings reduced to avoiding a hotel manager in order to beat bills? As great as Bennett’s live numbers performed during the nightclub scenes are — and her singing and hoofing is worthy of Garland in all her glory — End of the Rainbow is a cautionary tale. Fame is no substitute for a rewarding personal life offstage and offscreen, with loving family, friends, lovers/spouses. For Garland, celebrity and adulation proved to be empty intoxicants: There was no man behind the curtain for troubled Judy. Like amphetamines, renown may give one a temporary perk and high, but being a legend cannot replace the need for flesh and blood true love.
Why is it that the happiness some artists give to so many eludes them? You’d have to be a Tin Man with no heart to not be moved by this dramatization of the last days of the late, not-so-great Judy Garland.
End of the Rainbow plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m. (with added 2:00 p.m. performances on Thursdays April 4 and 18), Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. (with added 6:30 p.m. performances on Sundays March 31 and April 14) through April 21 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)972-4400.
Friday, 22 March 2013
Photos by Carol Rosegg and Craig Swartz