Late into “End of the Rainbow,” Peter Quilter’s account of the last gasp(s) of, yes, Judy Garland, the diva’s husband-to-be Mickey (Stephen Hagan) walks in on a tete-a-tete between Garland (Tracie Bennett) and Anthony, her gay pianist (Hilton McCrae). Momentarily nonplussed, Garland suddenly announces they were saying goodbye, an abrupt dismissal that comes as a shock. Unfortunately, that’s virtually the sole surprise in this entirely predictable biodrama. No, not biodrama, vehicle — one driven by the astonishingly larger-than-life Bennett.
Bennett plays Garland not just toward the end of her career but at the end of her rope, cajoling, caressing, snarling, weeping, wheedling and rampaging her way through the nightmare that was Garland’s five-week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town. Which means that when not seen holed up in an unpaid-for hotel suite with Mickey trying to keep her clean, she’s onstage, singing up a storm.
Garland’s concert career always was one part song to two parts revivalist meeting, so it is wholly appropriate that Bennett’s astonishing turn is close to an act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
It’s not just the sometimes uncanny aural mimicry, particularly in the middle of her register, that impresses. Bennett shares Garland’s large head on what was latterly a teetering, tiny body, which makes the sheer scale of the sound pouring out of her all the more remarkable as she tears into greatest hits from “The Trolley Song” to “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
The latter is the show’s high point. Playing Garland hopped up on Ritalin, Bennett hurls herself at the number. Clawing the air, jackknifing into the trademark accentuated poses, she doesn’t deliver the lyric, she devours it and spits it out, exultant and genuinely terrifying.
It’s a case of nothing succeeds like excess. The more extreme Garland’s situation grows, the more sense Bennett’s performance makes. Caught knocking back the first pills she can find, which turn out to have been a treatment for a sick cocker spaniel, she revels in rolling on the floor like a dog.
Yet in earlier scenes, Terry Johnson’s direction does little to build or shape her performance aside from underlining pathos via lighting cues. Nor does he control the necessary distinction between the character’s hunger for approval and that of his star, who this early into the run is already anticipating other people’s lines rather than listening to them.
Quilter’s script riffs on stories from Mickey Deans’ memoir “Weep No More, My Lady” and other Garland sources. He shows how infuriating she must have been, but the knowing dialogue is a cross between a series of overly set-up one-liners and a list of famous names. “Just look straight ahead and don’t move a muscle,” says Anthony, applying makeup. “That’s what Minnelli said to me when we were having sex,” Garland retorts.
What the script doesn’t manage is fresh insight or anything approaching subtext. This Garland knows and expresses herself so well that there’s nothing for audiences to discover. Hagan is lumbered with a nasty 1960s hairstyle and a severely underwritten role, but there is subtlety from softly spoken McCrae’s Anthony. “You homo!” yells Garland, out of nowhere, at Mickey. “No dear, I’m the homo,” says McCrae, judiciously. In other words, he functions as the Gay Perspective.
Bennett’s electrifying ability to bring the strutting, stumbling heroine back to life has so ignited local critics that “End of the Rainbow” is likely to be a big hit. Too bad that a woman who struggled against victimhood all her life should be recalled in something close to a wallow in the subject.