Tuesday, April 03, 2012

End Of The Rainbow

Now playing on Broadway, End of the Rainbow is an account of the last days of Judy Garland. The only reason I went to see this is because Tracie Bennett, channeling miss Garland, has incredible buzz and I was curious.
I read Garland's biography when I was barely a teenager. Poor Judy was brought up to become a great star and also a basket case. A performer from the age of two, she was adored by millions but never healed from the emotional wounds inflicted by her exploitative mother and all the pills she was given by MGM. They worked her hard. However, in this superficial, crowd pleasing show, except for Bennett's ferocious performance, there is no attempt to do anything but skim the surface. No interest in dwelling on the reasons why this talented woman was so damaged. Not that we need flashbacks, but there are no ghosts, no memories, no feeling of a life lived and suffered, and in many ways, wasted. Instead, there are feeble jokes about her serial husbands and The Wizard of Oz.
Bennett is much better than the play and the production. Even without comparing her to the real Garland, I suspected that the whole thing was way over the top. Garland was a wreck by the time the London Talk of the Town concerts came about in 1969, and probably reality was even worse than what is believable on stage, but the play would have benefited from a bit more fragility. There was something sweet and breakable about Garland that is almost missing in Bennett's brassy performance.
She allows us to see it at times, but the whole thing seems to be designed to raise the barn.
The actors who play opposite Bennett seem to have had whatever remnants of an edge or any personality leached out of them by the pandering, easy direction. Michael Cumpsty plays Anthony, her long-suffering, devoted, closeted gay pianist and Tom Pelphrey plays Garland's last husband, Mickey Deans, a questionable character much younger than her. Although Garland's greatest enemy was herself, it would have been better if she had characters she could relate to, not just scream at. This is true particularly of Pelphrey, who has an unfortunate resemblance to Jim Carrey and a bad seventies wig. From his shapeless, annoying performance it is impossible to tell whether he is a cad, or he loves her, or is a loafer or what he wants from her. Cumpsty fares better as the chubby, sweet pianist, but watching an unrelenting doormat is never interesting. He seems to be channeling Jim Broadbent at his cuddliest. The direction wants to hit all the high notes and pander to the audience with easy gay jokes. The production is spirited and energetic but what is missing is a stronger undercurrent of heartbreak.
The production design is nicely done, with one curtainless set that alternates an ornate suite at The Ritz in London with the stage where Garland performs, with a live band, the series of Talk of The Town concerts she gave in 1969. It's a great visual metaphor that blurs the private and the public, right for a life that was lived by performing. The illusion works best when Garland performs on stage and the current audience is used as a stand-in for the London audience.
Bennett is astounding in her ballsy, no holds barred performance. She inhabits a performer who is performing, a woman who even in private cannot stop performing (imperious diva, helpless creature, tease), half the time out of her wits, ebbing in strength but with superhuman energy, tearing her heart out every time. She has the voice and the delivery, but lacks the addled, doe eyed, fragile warmth that Garland's fans adore. She starts the show with a massive amount of energy and escalates from there. For even when Garland is in decline, Bennett's performance is way over the top, and out of her sheer devotion, energy and talent, it works. As with Marion Cotillard's channeling of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (another tiny giant diva), you gotta have ovaries of enriched uranium to step into the shoes of enormous artists like these two dames. Onstage, this is a feat of physical and emotional courage.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be performing like a trained seal since the age of two. What it must be like to be asked to be this frozen icon (Dorothy), that symbolizes so much joy to people, even as you've outgrown her long ago and while it may bring you waves of pain. Of all the train wrecks in the history of showbiz, Judy Garland seems to hold the record for endurance, and there are flashes of this in Bennett's performance. What Bennett understands best, because she shares it with Garland, is that enormous life energy that a performer needs to summon and spit out in order to be loved in return. It is so intense, particularly when an enormous talent needs to be unleashed, that it tends to burn out fast.
Bennett's commitment and her emotional generosity astound. There were a couple of times that I was truly moved by her. She does a rendition of Garland on stage, high as a kite on pills, which is manic, tragic, a wreck and horribly funny. And when she sings Over the Rainbow she will break your heart. Unfortunately, the production insists on showing a silver lining and ending on some sort of happy note that is completely unnecessary, and to me, offensive. This relentless enforced optimism exhausts me. Why can't we just celebrate human tragedy? It's not gonna kill us. It may make us stronger.

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