End Of The Rainbow: Clang! Clang! Clang! Went The Subtext
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If energy and physical commitment equaled craft and technique, Tracie Bennett's performance as Judy Garland in End Of The Rainbow might be considered one of the great triumphs of the season. But Peter Quilter's flimsy play offers her little in the way of support and director Terry Johnson has her playing more highly strung caricature than character, reducing the enterprise to little more than an endurance test for those at both sides of the footlights.
Commencing in late 1968 London, in set designer William Dudley's overwhelmingly opulent or garish (your choice) luxury suite at the Ritz, the play has a financially struggling Garland arriving for a five-week gig at The Talk of The Town. It's just six months before the troubled entertainer's death became a factor in sparking the gay rights movement and she is newly engaged to musician Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), 12 years her junior (a significant gap in those days), who is determined to keep her away from pills and booze so that she get back to work and start paying her debts. It's hardly a fair fight.
There's great dramatic potential in the relationship between the star and her new playmate, particularly because Deans' treatment of her appears close to abusive at times, though his actions are attempts to keep her from self-destruction. Unfortunately there is no sexual or romantic chemistry between Bennett and Pelphrey and Deans' quick fits of anger carry no sense of danger.
Garland's glib remarks, temper tantrums, vulgar jokes, comments about her ex-husbands (though never any mention of her children) and attempts to charm her way to hidden stashes of pills and liquor are to be expected (though her impersonation of a cocker spaniel was, indeed, a surprise) but the playwright rarely gives us a reason to sympathize with his subject, perhaps assuming we'd walk in with enough love for her to spare him the need.
Thus, on the occasions when the back wall of the room lifts up and we're suddenly treated to music director Jeffrey Saver's six piece ensemble accompanying the star with Chris Eagan's brassy arrangements of classics like "The Trolley Song," "The Man That Got Away" and "Come Rain Or Come Shine," there's little emotional foundation to lift these moments above being more than a novelty act. Bennett is obviously working extremely hard to nail the singing voice and the elaborate physical gestures and to pump as much desperate energy as possible into these showcase moments, but even when we see the star crumbling in front of her British fans mid-performance there is nothing to commit to emotionally.
The only one who manages to generate any legitimate pathos is the fine stage actor Michael Cumpsty, playing Anthony, the music director who is working with Garland for the first time in five years. In the first act, Cumpsty is regulated to being the peripheral gay man who cuts in every so often with a clever remark, but in the second act he's handed the two best-written (and perhaps the only well-written) scenes in the play; intimate moments between Anthony and Garland where he expresses non-sexual love for her, though it seems grounded by the memory of her film images, and the willingness to take care of her for rest of their days. Bennett's reactions nicely convey confusion regarding her character's feelings about the way she's seen by gay men.
If only the rest of End Of The Rainbow had that much heart.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Tracie Bennett and Tom Pelphrey; Bottom: Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett.
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Posted on April 03, 2012 - by
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About the Author:After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.