Tuesday, March 26, 2013

End of the Rainbow

While I've seen it in movies all the time, I don't think I've ever been in an audience that repeatedly yelled "bravo."  Until I was at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater recently to see "End of the Rainbow."  But there I was.  In the middle of the orchestra seats watching people scream wildly for the performance of Tracie Bennett.

And deservedly so.  This is a bravura turn for this British actress who completely transforms herself into the legendary Judy Garland.  But this is not an imitation.  Heck, you can find a drag queen on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood to do that.  Indeed, when she talks and sings, Bennett doesn't sound completely like Garland.  She's probably too smart an actress to do that.  But, by adopting many of Judy's mannerisms, Tracie Bennett does become her.  A performance that never once falls into parody or satire.  In less surer hands, that easily could have happened.  

"End of the Rainbow" is part play/part musical developed originally in London several years ago.  It was moved to Broadway last year and I was headed to see it with my usual NY theater buddy Lorraine.  But arthroscopic knee surgery took care of that and I had to cancel the trip.  So, when producers moved it lock, stock, and prescription pills to Los Angeles, I had to finally catch up to it.

After all, my mother would not have wanted it otherwise.

I was always a fan of Judy Garland, thanks to Mom.  At a very early age, she sat me down to watch all those MGM musicals.  My mother was a fan.  So much so that she later confessed to me that, had I been born a girl, I would have been named Judy.  I'm not sure what exactly drew my mom to Judy Garland.  Beyond the outstanding voice, there had to be something else.  I will never know, of course.

So, whenever I get the chance, I absorb books, plays, and tributes about Judy Garland looking for the connection she made with my mom.  Certainly, I don't think that could be found in "End of the Rainbow."  Because this is Judy Garland at perhaps one of the darker times of her life.  Indeed, she was gone just a short six months later.

This production is a snapshot of Miss Garland in January, 1969.  In tremendous debt and still unable to get off booze and pills, Judy heads to London where her new manager/fiance Mickey Deans has booked her to play nightly performances at "Talk of the Town."  She's really in no shape to perform but she needs to do so because she can't even afford the hotel room she's staying in.  And you watch as Judy careens around the hotel room, vacillating wildly between lucid moments and others where she is completely off the wall.  Sometimes, a kitten.  Other times, a panther looking for her next prey.  

Deans tries to keep her off the liquor and prescription pills, but eventually relents because that's the only way to keep his gravy train on the express track.  He comes off as a jerk and probably was one in real life.  The real guy died a few years back, so the show producers are obviously not worried about defamation lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Garland's only ally is her pianist Anthony, who is really a composite of every gay show business colleague she had throughout life.  Anthony wants only the best for Judy and struggles frequently with both her and Deans to effectively try and save his heroine's life.  

"End of the Rainbow" is one of those hybrid stage productions.  Mostly a play set in the hotel room, it occasionally breaks into a musical as you watch Garland do her nightly performances at the theater.  All of the usual Garland standards are trucked out for our enjoyment.  Again, Bennett never attempts to duplicate what we have all heard on records and in movies over the years.  But, in her own unique way, she still manages to evoke every memory of Garland that we all have.  

Indeed, there is one number, "Come Rain or Come Shine" which is performed after a scene where Judy swallows some Ritalin to get herself moving.  As a result, the song is sung manically.  Not for show, but for dramatic purposes as a plot point.  Bennett's moments here are virtually magnificent.  You are watching Judy Garland at her most bi-polar.

Unfortunately, all is not a pot of gold at "End of the Rainbow."  When my buddy Lorraine saw it in NY last year, her main sticking point was that the actor playing Mickey Deans was awful.  I noticed that that particular guy did not make it to the Los Angeles edition.  But his NY understudy did.  And was equally as bad, in my humble opinion.


What are the Vegas odds that two completely different actors would appear to be as inept in the same role?  Pretty high.  This points to a problem not with the acting, but the writing and the direction.  Obviously, the part of Mickey Deans is written and directed so badly that nobody can survive it.  The culprits there would be playwright Peter Quiller and director Terry Johnson, whose apparent love for Garland likely upended the rest of the cast.  

The script itself does have its moments where it seems to be nothing more than an episode of "Two and a Half Men."  For instance, there's one scene where Deans and Garland are screaming profanity at each other.  Anthony asks why their language must be so offensive.  Mickey and Judy turn to him and say in unison, "fuck off."  How cheap and obvious can you get?

But, still, you simply wait for the next golden moment that Tracie Bennett will have.  As she brings you back to that Judy Garland concert or performance that you could previously only imagine in your mind.

Or perhaps it was one that your mother told you all about.

Dinner last night:  Pepperoni and olive pizza at Polpettina.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember the very funny tape of Garland played by Howard Stern. She was supposed to record her memoirs, was drunk off her ass, and vilifying ex-husband/crook Sid Luft.

That's a show I'd see.