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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Buddy B on Broadway: When There's No Getting Over That Rainbow

The amazing Tracie Bennett as J.G.
What can I say about a Broadway show that has its main character, Judy Garland, bounce back from the dead just before curtain to belt out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," except that I loved it!

You don't have to be gay to like End of the Rainbow but, as they say, it helps. Ben Brantley gave it a rave in The New York Times.

"As befits a play about Judy Garland, a woman known for liberally mixing her pills, Peter Quilter’s 'End of the Rainbow' is a jolting upper and downer at the same time. After watching Tracie Bennett’s electrifying interpretation of Garland in the intense production that opened on Monday night at the Belasco Theater, you feel exhilarated and exhausted, equally ready to dance down the street and crawl under a rock," wrote the critic.

Rainbow is most definitely a theatrical star vehicle with the star giving an absolute tour de force performance. Tracie Bennett flies around the stage more than Spiderman, and she's not on wires! (Though "wired" is a good way to describe her performance.) When it comes to booze-and-pills-soaked egomania mixed with an unending neediness, Judy Garland puts Neely O'Hara (her counterpart from the Jacqueline Susann roman a clef, Valley of the Dolls) to shame, if we are to believe playwright Quilter's dramatization, which is certainly part fiction, part legend, part truth.

The real Judy with 5th hubby, Mickey Deans
It would be no wonder Garland went through five husbands, four of whom left her (she died on the fifth), as spending just a little over two hours with her impersonator left me with a slight revulsion. A manic-depressive mess in a dress, Bennett's Garland is a bunch of raw nerves, and irritating, but not without a coquettish charm. This show may be exhausting to watch but it must be even more exhausting to perform. I couldn't imagine giving this energy to a matinee and evening performance in the same day. And the currently Tony-nominated Bennett has been doing this show since she originated it in London's West End!

On behalf of all the drag queens all over the world, I'm afraid Tracie Bennett is the greatest drag queen of them all when it comes to Judy, Judy, Judy. She's got the voice right, the look honed to perfection and her singing is flawlessly on target. Of course, drag is about illusion, and illusion is what theater is about. I don't know if the real Judy Garland slung bon mots around so freely, but I like to imagine she must have.

Besides Ms Bennett's brilliant performance, she receives strong support from Tom Pelphrey as husband-to-be Mickey Deans, Michael Cumpsty as the fictitious pianist, and Jay Russell in an array of bit parts.

The set that transforms itself from Garland's London hotel suite to the Talk of the Town theater (where a flat-broke Judy is attempting to stage another comeback) and back again is very cleverly constructed, with the show's great orchestra seen behind a scrim in the Talk of the Town sequences. Ms Bennett covers all of Garland's biggest hits ("The Man That Got Away," "Come Rain or Come Shine") to ironic effect within the context of the script.

Judy was fired from the making of the film, Valley of the Dolls, for being unreliable on the set. She left with her Helen Lawson costume (replica worn in the play). Judy's film role then went to Susan Hayward. As Helen Lawson roars in the movie: "Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope!"

Obviously, she was wrong.

At the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200,

Below, an alcohol-and-pills-fueled Judy talks into a tape recorder in an attempt to put together some raw data about her life for a planned autobiographical book. (She died before these tapes could produce anything coherent for publication.) As a narrative, this is almost unintelligible. But, emotionally, it is real; unprocessed and unrefined. Judy's rage and sarcasm make me think that End of the Rainbow is far from exaggerated or fabricated. This YouTube entry is from the hard-to find bootleg cd, Judy Garland Speaks.

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