BOY CULTURE RATING: ** out of ****
Some friends and I saw End of the Rainbow Saturday night, the new play chronicling a few weeks toward the end of Judy Garland's life, and I have to say I was really disappointed. And embarrassed that a publication like Entertainment Weekly could give what we saw an A-, even with an admittedly fantastic central performance. (Other sources have similarly praised the production.)
As my friend Christopher pointed out, the show is mostly made up of bits that Judy said on TV shows and elsewhere (a barb about Deanna Durbin's unibrow, a remark about Elizabeth Taylor's annoying perfection, some slams regarding her ex-husbands); it feels like one of those bad TV biopics FOX used to do.
The acting is nothing special. Michael Cumpsty offers a likable but drearily familiar supportive gay pianist (one who offers to take care of Judy as what would have been yet another homo hubby for her) but sexy soap actor Tom Pelphrey, as Judy's last husband Mickey Deans, is simply out of his depth. It felt amateurish, a vibe unaided by unimaginative, overly utilitarian sets.
It actually ends with a brief monologue about what happened next, as in, "Judy Garland died a few months later..." etc.
And yet...I can still recommend this show. Why, if it's so...eh? Because if you are even slightly less down on all of the things I've criticized, it's worth it for Tracie Bennett, whose portrait of Judy Garland is scarily spot-on. Definitely she must be the best female Judy Garland impersonator. Except, even though there are moments when she is almost ridiculously over the top (so was Judy!), her portrayal rises above mere mimickry. She presents who that woman was—surprisingly lusty, insecure, gifted, exhausted. With the recent demise of Whitney Houston, the story of Judy Garland is all too relevant—and it's a shame so many gay men not only express disinterest in her legacy (hey, to each her own) but contempt at the traditionally close tie between Garland and the gays.
Bennett's vocal performances are truly amazing, from a show-stopping Act One closer like "The Man That Got Away" to a majestic "Over the Rainbow" that manages to make that extremely familiar song fresh, and to ferret out every nugget of pathos in comparing its cheerful message with Garland's misery.
Bennett may or may not win a Tony, but she has to be nominated.
Give this one a chance if you think you can stomach the filler. We used TKTS to pay about $70. For my money, I'd rather have seen Bennett do a one-woman show.