“This is a room for midgets!” says aging icon Judy Garland (Tracie Bennett), surveying her British hotel room, which looks pretty large — in fact, it takes up the entire stage.
But in Peter Quilter‘s End of the Rainbow, Judy’s on a rampage, since the play is a revealing wallow into her final stretch in 1968.
The play-with-music has Judy’s young new fiancé Mickey Deans (sort of the original David Gest, but worse) forbidding her to drink or do drugs, though he ends up desperately feeding pills to her so she’ll get back onstage.
Add to the mix a gay pianist named Anthony (a very good Michael Cumpsty), who wants to save her from Deans’s dealings, though his own agenda — hoping to take Judy away and live with her — doesn’t appeal to the legend at all.
And so she’s torn between a young man who says he loves her but ends up being an enabler and a worshipful representative of the gay community who wants to climb rainbows with her through eternity.
The best thing about the play — which is interspersed with Judy performing numbers at London’s Talk of the Town — is that it doesn’t string together lots of random biographical tidbits, like so many of these shows awkwardly do in order to sum up a life.
The play is very much about a particular moment.
Another good thing is Bennett.
With a hint of Tallulah in her quivering put-downs and a soupçon of Mimi Hines, Bennett is a firework as Judy.
The only problem for me is that even at her most manic, Judy wasn’t this manic.
There must have been moments when she wasn’t “Judy Garland.”
In Act One, Bennett moves and is “on” on every syllable, whether tapping her knuckles on the couch, puffing away, or flailing her arms about.
When performing, her voice is smokily powerful, but she’s flouncing around the stage like a puppet at times. The extreme athleticism is a little bit baffling, and it can be exhausting to watch.
But in a radio interview where she’s seated, Bennett does brilliantly, showing the distraction and uneasiness with subtle strokes.
And Act Two starts with her sitting and being made up by Anthony, another scene in which she’s eerily on target.
And you’ll never forget the bit where Bennett’s Judy accidentally takes a pill meant for a dog with mange and ends up on all fours! It’s an absolute riot and shows Judy in an endearing self-mocking mode.
By the end, you might feel this is over the top rather than over the rainbow, but you still admire the talent and chutzpah that never got away.