With so many Broadway shows opening this spring (as happens every year), it can be very difficult to budget one’s money and time in deciding what to see and what not to see. But if your taste is equivalent to mine, there’s one “entertainment” that can safely be placed at the bottom of your list: Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, which has come to us from London and is now darkening the Belasco Theater.
This scurrilous enterprise is a dark portrait of the great Judy Garland at her lowest ebb, six months before her death, as she takes residence in a London hotel in advance of her engagement at the nightclub Talk of the Town. Harrowing scenes in the hotel suite alternate with scenes at the club in which Garland, played by Tracie Bennett, performs some of the legend’s most famous songs, backed by an excellent onstage band.
There are two other major characters in the play: Garland’s fifth husband, the much younger Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), and a presumably fictionalized character named Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), her pianist for her engagement at the club. The cast is rounded out by Jay Russell, doing triple duty as a BBC interviewer, a porter, and an assistant stage manager.
There’s no doubt that what happens during the course of the play — Garland’s scrounging for liquor and pills, her non-payment of the hotel bill, the fact that she sometimes kept her audiences waiting a long time for her to appear — is based in truth. But, of course, it’s only a very small part of the greater truth about a woman who is generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest entertainers in history. Worse, these and other events are depicted in such a horrifically exploitative fashion that the show winds up being outrageously disrespectful, not to mention exhaustive and depressing. Even at the end of her troubled life, Garland was famous for her wonderfully wry sense of humor, but whatever “humor” may be found in End of the Rainbow is of the most puerile sort.
It could be argued that offering a dead-on impersonation of Garland is not the main point of End of the Rainbow; but considering that so many other artists (both male and female) have “done” the lady to a T, it’s odd that a high-profile show like this one couldn’t have fielded a more convincing Judy. For a start, Bennett looks more like Rue McClanahan than Miss Garland. When she speaks, her attempt to hide her British accent causes her to sound sometimes like Katharine Hepburn, sometimes like Tallulah Bankhead, never convincingly like J.G. Only when she sings does Bennett sometimes capture the Garland sound, but just for a few notes at a time before a completely non-Judyesque pronunciation, inflection, or vocal timbre destroys the illusion. For all of the tremendous energy she displays on stage, Bennett is unqualified to play this particular icon.
Cumpsty does yeoman work as Anthony, the best-written role in the play. As Deans, Pelphrey is stiff as a board. Director Terry Johnson’s work here is pedestrian. The band plays very well under musical director Jeffrey Saver — but the effect of the transformation to the performance scenes is marred because, when the back wall of the hotel room flies up to reveal the band, all of the furniture in the room remains onstage.
That bit of amateurishness indicates the quality of this show in general, as does the shockingly offensive scene in which Garland, portrayed as so desperate an addict that she takes pills intended for a dog, starts walking around on all fours, barking, and lifting her leg to urinate on the couch. Oh, yes, and there’ s another moment where she vomits on stage — although, blessedly, she does so behind the back of a couch, so we don’t actually see the spew. If all of this sounds entertaining to you, and if you want to spend good money to experience the same sort of cheap thrills provided by the most idiotic “reality TV” show, be my guest. If not, my advice is to stay far away from this one.