Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
On a Star Dying Old, Too Young: “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson
When people talk about the dark side of the heyday of Hollywood, they always begin with Judy Garland. By now it’s all the stuff of legend: the lifelong addiction begun when the studio fed her drugs as a child to keep her weight down and her energy up, the drinking, the failed marriages. She was used up and spit out by MGM, and floundered her way (with a few notable exceptions) through until her death at 47. Those last few live recordings bear witness to a fine instrument whose gears have all but stripped.
In Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre, one gets a fairly accurate portrait of her last year, if the many books by those who knew her are to be believed. It’s not a very pretty picture: debts, denial, debilitating stage fright, damaged voice. She’s in London trying once again to restart her career, dealing with a brand new marriage to a man who may see her as a meal ticket, and she’s falling apart.
To make all of this come off, one must have a good Judy Garland. The thing is, when you’re dealing with an icon, the portrait must be fairly precise in any case, and here it must be precise about that icon in rapid decline. There must be the overblown gestures so well documented in her last live concerts. There must be the unpredictable overemotionalism. There must be – and this is perhaps the most tricky – the sound of a voice once the stuff of dreams, now stripped and rasping. It must have the grit more than the glam.
Enter Tracie Bennett, who has arrived with a fistful of awards (and a larger one of nominations) for this portrait. You really begin to understand the depth of her performance when she backs off at the curtain call and sings a song without the age-strain she keeps up nonstop during the course of the show. She has the edginess, the high-drama body language, the underscore of suspicion down cold.
And, she has fine performances to bounce off of. Michael Cumpsty, as the pianist hired to nurse Judy through the comeback, becomes two important factors in Garland’s life: the musicians who loved her in spite of her increasing foibles, and the large gay following who supported her even as her talents waned. Erik Heger is Judy’s last husband, former nightclub owner Mickey Deans – a man balancing his fondness for the star with financial desperation. Miles Anderson does the catch-all, playing interviewers and hotel porters and others, and making each distinctive.
But without Bennett, it would all be for naught. Some may find the portrait rather over the top, but for those who say so I encourage a look back on YouTube to some of Garland’s last filmed work. It’s all there, or at least the beginnings of it, as far back as the gestures in “The Man That Got Away”. Even in trying to be tender, as Quilter’s script does, she comes off as a train wreck, but that’s what she was at that point. Indeed, only about six months after the events in this play, Garland was dead.
Which is the most difficult thing about “End of the Rainbow.” It is always sad to watch someone disintegrate, but even more so when it’s someone who was so admired, and who had such a gift. Disconcertingly, the opening night audience applauded each song – even those which most displayed the character’s increasingly obvious vocal limitations – with a kind of abandon. Were they applauding the artistry necessary to pull that off, or – and this felt more likely – were many of them like those last audiences she sang for in London and Copenhagen: willing to cheer Judy Garland on, remember her better than she now was.
In any case, set and costume designer William Dudley has framed the space Garland inhabits with accuracy, giving the rare set changes a fluidity which keeps the story active, and even providing the famed sequined pant suit so associated with those later concerts. Director Terry Johnson has taken something which could have become morbidly static and found an energy within to keep the necessarily talky story rolling. The attention to detail throughout is almost daunting. But then, what else can one do with someone about whom so many know so very much?
So, go. Go, if only to see a performance which has been acclaimed on a multitude of stages. Go to remember the end of the story which began for most Americans with a little girl in a mythical Kansas singing about a rainbow. Just don’t go to be comfortable. An ethical nightmare of a studio system based right here, combined with a driven mother and a demanding public both created and destroyed Judy Garland. That is simply a fact. “End of the Rainbow” just provides the illustration.
What: “End of the Rainbow” When: Through April 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays with added 2 p.m. performances April 4 and 18 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles, at the Music Center How Much: $20 – $110 Info: (213) 972-4400 or ww.CenterTheatreGroup.org