End of the Rainbow: See Judy Crawl

Why dwell on a great artist’s last desperate days?

Yes, she crawls. She barfs over the back of the couch. She imitates a dog lifting its leg to pee. She tugs at her much-younger boyfriend’s pants leg, begging for booze or pills or a taste of what’s behind his fly. And none of this has any point as drama except that we’re supposedly watching the last days of Judy Garland. Isn’t there a law against trafficking in human corpses? I feel sure it contains some clause that might be enforceable against the perpetrators of End of the Rainbow (Belasco Theatre), allegedly a dramatization of Garland’s behavior during her ultimate, and ultimately disastrous gig at London’s Talk of the Town cabaret, in 1969, shortly before her death.

Presumably people exist—though I frankly wish they didn’t—who view the mucky details of celebrity breakdowns, tarted up with sufficient sensationalism, as a meaningful take on famous people’s lives. For those who actually care about Judy Garland, the person, or about her extraordinary musical gifts and what she achieved with them, this preoccupation with the final throes of her collapse can only seem embarrassing or stupid. It’s like saying you would rather watch a great ballerina twist her ankle, or a great actor forget his lines, than actually witness a great performance.

Yes, it’s dramatic: All live performances contain the suspense of potential disaster, the way all highways contain the potential of car wrecks. But that’s not what they’re there for. The notion of attending a show in hopes of watching the artist crash and burn gives off a stench of pettiness. The petty sensibility behind End of the Rainbow, along with its ineffectuality as a play, only makes its cheesy exploitation of gossip-mill material seem that much more depressing. Judy, in her final phase of physical frailty at the painfully young age of 47, got entangled with yet another seedy wannabe, this one an ex-disco manager named Mickey Deans, who tried to push her into yet another comeback, and couldn’t. The end.

No yellow brick road: Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett, and Tom Pelphrey
Carol Rosegg
No yellow brick road: Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett, and Tom Pelphrey

Details

End of the Rainbow
By Peter Quilter
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
212-239-6200
endoftherainbowboradway.com

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Since the struggles and lapses implied by that one-sentence summary hardly offer more than a five-minute montage’s worth of stage event, playwright Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson pad out the evening by interspersing numbers from the nightclub gig between the recriminative scenes. The five-piece band, led by Jeffrey Saver, does an excellent job. Tracie Bennett, the Garland impersonator on whose slender shoulders the evening rests, exerts an enormous amount of energy and flair to keep the show moving—too much energy, perhaps, for the role of a woman supposed to be in a physically debilitated condition, as Judy is said to have been at that point.

Bennett is effective. She has a big voice and knocks the familiar songs out hard. But she doesn’t have either Garland’s pathos or her innate musicality. The Garland phrasing sounds replicated rather than organic; compulsively repeated, the tick-tocky, arms-wide gestures look like a skilled nightclub impressionist’s caricature. Garland, by that point, may have become to some extent a caricature of herself—but the desire to memorialize her in that guise, when all her previous states of existence are already so well preserved on film, video, and audio recording, seems as ungracious as it is historically shortsighted.

The real question is what makes Judy Garland important. For the ghouls whose only interest lies in the schadenfreude of another famous career shipwrecked, Garland’s persona, like her music, may not signify much. That the gay liberation movement arose, precipitated by the Stonewall riots, out of the news of her death shows the opposite of a morbid interest: For the closeted gay men of that earlier generation, she had become a totem, not by wrecking herself, but by her repeated triumphant re-emergence from the wreckage. Neither A Star Is Born nor the 1961 Carnegie Hall concert finds her in a wrecked state. The will to preserve her memory, which has persisted for two generations, can hardly be attributed to a desire to shed *End of the Rainbow" brand of crocodile tears over her exit.

Yet about her artistic greatness, as easily accessible today on YouTube and iTunes as it was when The Wizard of Oz premiered in 1939, Quilter and Johnson have nothing to tell us. They busy themselves showing Deans (an ineffectual performance by Tom Pelphrey) as, alternately, a bully and an enabling sap, whose motives remain murky from start to finish. For contrast, they offer a sympathetic Scottish accompanist (sensitively played by Michael Cumpsty)—who’s gay, of course, but offers to marry Judy anyway in a lame attempt to rescue her from Deans.

But there was no rescuing her: The damage had been done long ago, in her adolescence, by MGM’s policy of working her to exhaustion for the sake of the box office. What makes Garland’s art memorable is the total directness and clarity with which she tackles each new song, each new scene, in the face of that impossible pressure—or, after her 1950 collapse and departure from MGM, while fighting off its continued aftershocks. She is a stage child, raised in vaudeville from infancy; when she sings, she does not inflict her griefs on her audience, any more than she conceals them. Her sorrows are presented in song, in her later recordings, with the same wide-eyed lucidity as her teenage imagination of the land over the rainbow.

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7 comments
dredge
dredge

Thank you for your review. I am trying to understand the mind set of those defending this crap. And I can only imagine it's a mix of schadenfreude and a sort of OCD in the public these days for verisimilitude. Gee this is exactly what it's like to have a mental breakdown. This is exactly how Judy was in her last day. Completely without context. And without empathy. Vultures picking at a dead carcass. And Steve, you are quoting some else's subjective metaphorical take on Judy Garland. That is not research; And something a critic need not draw from to form an opinion or to analyze.

Steve Roscow
Steve Roscow

According to Mickey Deans' book, Bennett is getting the role exactly right. I suppose none of you have taken Ritalin. Here's how Deans describes Judy's performances at the Talk Of The Town in his book Weep No More My Lady...."Sometimes she wielded the microphone cord like a lion-tamers' whip. She did dance steps. She strutted, arms akimbo. Her movements were suddenly grotesque, like a marionettes. She threw her arms up stiffly, her legs came together at the knees."......A reviewer of the time, Derek Jewell said ..."No logic, no analysis, no judgment in the world can completely explain the phenomenon of Garland's performance at Talk Of The Town. She walks the brim of the volcano each second. At time her voice is flawed."Doesn't sound as though she was too frail to be big on stage then....'walks the brim of the volcano??? That sounds a very energetic performance to me.You should have done more research and have been less personal.

Joseph
Joseph

This review sums up the way I felt as well. Tracie Bennet works very hard but is one-dimensional. She lacks that one most important quality mentioned in the review: soul. The writing in the play is offensive and amateur. The only saving grace in this mess is the wonderful actor, Michael Cumpsty.

Carolynzaremba
Carolynzaremba

My mother, a classicly trained singer, was a huge fan of Judy Garland. I grew up listening to Garland's records and to my mother singing the songs. I learned all the songs by heart myself and consider both Garland and my mother to have been my first singing teachers. Aretha was right.

William V. Madison
William V. Madison

At once a vivid tribute to Garland and an eloquent analysis of the play. Thank you.

Michael O'Farrell
Michael O'Farrell

Although Tracie Bennett has been hailed by several theater critics for her performance in End of The Rainbow and the play was something of a sensation in London and now on Broadway, this theater/movie enthusiast and an unabashed fan of Judy Garland will resist the urge to see this production. A number of biographies, past Hollywood news items etc. have recounted Garland's demons, her struggles with pills and weight, her triumphs and failures, her supposed banishment from Hollywood (The "Annie Get Your Gun" debacle) only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes(first, "A Star Is Born", then her legendary Carnegie Hall Concert). There have been a select number of performing geniuses in the history of 20th Century Hollywood: Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marlon Brando. Judy Garland belongs on this list. Her performance in "The Wizard of Oz" alone places her securely in the firmament of Hollywood's Legendary Galaxy of unforgettable performances. Garlands was a brilliant, intuitive actress and singer, one of those enormous talents who come along once in a lifetime. Her life was full of struggles. She was human, and human frailty can often bring a person down to unfathomable depths. But Garland will live on untarnished because of her overwhelming talent.

 
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