In “End of the Rainbow,” wannabe manager Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) withholds pills and booze from Judy Garland (Tracie Bennett), doles them out to get her through a performance, and finally force-feeds them when she’s too weak to fight. Which more or less approximates playwright Peter Quilter’s treatment of the audience, not abetted by director Terry Johnson’s sensationalistic treatment. Bennett is astonishing as the all-but-vanquished Judy, with actress and character dragged through the vomit on the carpet of the star’s suite at the Ritz. But her turn attracts attention in a play that does everything it can to repel it.
Action centers around the opening of Garland’s five-week stint at the Talk of the Town in London in December 1968. (Garland died of an overdose on June 22, 1968, and Quilter presents her as being on the verge of self-imposed oblivion.) What we get is not unexpected. The star is in no shape to perform; her soon-to-be husband is determined to milk every dollar he can get from her; her loyal, gay accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), tries to protect her, and even goes so far as to apply Judy’s makeup when she is indisposed.
Bennett gives a startling performance, wallowing in booze and self-pity. Rabid fans of Garland are likely to either foam at the mouth in rapture — with Bennett bringing them a meticulously etched rendition of Judy live, albeit at lowest ebb — or proclaim the performance a disrespectful travesty. Either way, Bennett certainly acts the hell out of this hellish role.
She’s also called upon to sing nine of the star’s standards. Bennett loads the songs with Judy’s mannerisms, naturally, although at times to the point of overload. This might not be the best impersonation of Garland you’ll ever hear, but Bennett delivers a strong enough impression of the star.
Pelphrey, making his Broadway debut, isn’t nearly as impressive, but Cumpsty gives one of his strongest performances as piano player Anthony. The presumably fictional character is a compilation of cliches: a gentle Scotsman who dotes on his mother, loves to sit in his little house listening to the rain on the roof while cooking, and would like nothing more than to whisk his idol away and treat her like royalty. Cumpsty makes it all believable and, with the well-timed raising of an eyebrow, entertaining.
Designer William Dudley’s Ritz suite opens up occasionally, and not especially artfully, to reveal the Talk of the Town bandstand, but the six-piece band sounds very good. Included in the proceedings is a manically wild rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which stands out not for the Ritalin-fueled vocals but for the instrumental playing.