by: Sandi Durell

Brit Tracie Bennett is nothing less than mesmerizing as the quintessential Judy Garland, an icon still so loved and revered that Ms. Bennett’s performance brings the audience to their feet, cheering at the site of anyone who can revive the magic. But this isn’t just another impersonator. No, this is a two-time Olivier Award-winner who took the West End by storm and under the direction of Tony Award-winner Terry Johnson (La Cage aux Folles), at the Belasco Theatre, is breathing continuing life into Peter Quilter’s ‘End of the Rainbow.”

The play, with music, takes place in the sumptuous suite of The Ritz Hotel, London, in December 1968 where Judy is desperately trying to make a comeback and spurred on by her young manager and soon-to-be fifth husband Mickey Deans, the well-cast Tom Pelphrey in his Broadway debut. Judy’s long time pianist Anthony, a delightful Michael Cumpsty, is the gay Scottish guy who represents all the gay Judy fans, and the one person who seems to care more for her than the users and takers who have always inhabited her life.

The time period is near the end of Judy’s life (she died at age 47 in 1969) and she is a tragic image who, from the age of 14, was pushed into drugs by the studios and even her own mother in order to perform.

“Whenever I drink water, I always feel I’m missing out on something,” says Judy who is not only missing her booze but the pills that keep her kinetic, highly emotional, jerky movements alive in performance. She’s Ritalin-addicted at this point and how sad it is to watch her beg, plead and crawl as the tortured figure she had become. She’s portrayed as a sex kitten with great appetite and a potty mouth.

The elegant suite (scenic design by William Dudley) transforms back and forth easily from such to London’s “Talk of the Town” (with 5 piece band) where Judy is slated to do 5 weeks of concerts. She’s a wreck, shaky, afraid, ordering people around, unable to pay her hotel bill. Bennett has a powerful husky sounding voice, occasionally almost sounding like Katharine Hepburn, which basically allows her to do anything. She is unstoppable and manic-like in her presentation of Garland. Does she actually inhabit Judy? I occasionally had the impression that the performance was designed to be almost caricature-like – – – to prove a point? But each time she breaks out into song – “The Man That Got Away,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just in Time,” “Trolley Song” and theme song “Over The Rainbow,” spinning wildly on the stage, we’re drawn back into the illusion, sheer intensity and of a life of destruction.

There are enough laugh lines to assuage the sadness that constantly seeps into the soul as we watch her descent. There’s a particularly humorous scene where her desperation causes her to grab pills out of a case, swallow them only to find out they were medicine for a mangy dog, reason enough to crawl around on all fours, lifting her leg appropriately.

Terry Johnson has directed Bennett with the brush strokes of a fine artist.

Belasco Theatre, West 44th Street, NYC

Photo: Carol Rosegg