In Pasadena Playhouse’s current “One Night With Janis Joplin,” at least Mary Bridget Davies tries to replicate the late rocker when she was in her prime — and comes close. Tracie Bennett in Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow” recalls Judy Garland when the voice is all but gone. And the play surrounding the many Garland standards is of even less interest. That’s entertainment?
There can be a melancholic pleasure to be derived from listening to great singers perform past their prime. Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand on the recent Oscar telecast are good examples. Their powers are diminished but there’s still considerable greatness on display there. Bennett, on the other hand, has only a few decent notes at what would have been the bottom of Garland’s range. When she misses or fudges the many other notes, we’re supposed to think that she’s mimicking a vocally distressed Garland at the end of her career. But Bennett doesn’t have those many other notes! It’s simply a barely adequate but very determined singer imitating vocal weakness.
Those moments on stage with Bennett singing have their perverse charm. It’s amazing how many Garland poses she can pack into two minutes of singing. And then repeat all those poses in the next number and the next.
When Bennett isn’t singing, the Garland character is back in her London hotel suite trying to put together her final concerts, in 1968. The Garland poses are now replaced with dozens of Garland tics and twitches culled and copied from her movies and TV appearances. As three-note as Bennett is as a singer, you’ll want her back on stage performing rather than berating and dishing with her submissive gay pianist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) and her manager-fiance-jerk Mickey Deans (Erik Heger) in that increasingly claustrophobic hotel room. Have two duller foils to a star ever been written for the stage? Garland needs a George Cukor or a Louis B. Mayer to spar with. Quilter’s two male characters don’t have the stature or the wit or even the volume; Bennett’s Garland simply steamrolls over them with all those tics and twitches, taking more drugs and missing more performances.
A tragedy took place in the life of Garland, but long before this hotel-concert episode, which is simply pathetic. Back in 1969, Vincent Canby in the New York Times noted that the shock of Garland’s death that year was that she wasn’t already dead.
Deans ultimately uses any means to get Garland on stage. Quilter somehow sees this as a bad thing, and makes Anthony his mouthpiece, begging that the concerts be canceled because Judy’s all burnt out. If only Quilter had taken his own advice. Of course, getting her up on stage is the show’s only suspense. It’s the only reason to watch this sad spectacle.
Then again, as one wag put it leaving the Ahmanson, “Bennett’s good, but she’s no Jim Bailey.”
(Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles; 2,024 seats; $110 top)
A Center Theater Group presentation of a play with music in two acts by Peter Quilter. Directed by Terry Johnson. Sets and costumes, William Dudley; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Gareth Owen; orchestrations, Chris Egan; musical arrangements, Gareth Valentine; music direction, Jeffrey Saver; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press. Opened and reviewed March 20, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
With: Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumpsty, Erik Heger, Miles Anderson