Playing Judy Garland in the months leading up to the actress' fatal 1969 overdose, Tracie Bennett spends much of "End of the Rainbow" horizontal — though rarely for more than 10 seconds at a time.
The central prop of the bio-musical now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre is a hotel suite's fainting couch, but there's little fainting going on. Bennett throws herself onto or drapes herself across that beleaguered piece of furniture in every manic contortion possible. Even momentarily prone, she has enough manic energy to repower the San Onofre reactors.
So you can imagine the voltage she puts off when she's bolt upright, during the show's full-on musical numbers, when the action changes to the London nightclub where Garland is attempting what turns out to be her final comeback.
No real-life tragic heroine has ever gone into that good night quite as ungently as Garland does in "End of the Rainbow," which manages to send you out wondering whether you've just seen a cautionary bummer or a high-on-life theatrical thrill-aganza.
Better that we don't have to decide and can just agree to mark Bennett's performance down as one of the most exciting you will ever see on either end of the color crescent.
"End of the Rainbow" starts off as — and thankfully never completely gives up on being — a drawing room comedy, with an always energized Garland trading quips with the two other principal characters at a nearly Howard Hawks-ian rate.
Well, "trade" is appropriate only in one of the two cases. There is the pianist determined to keep her in musical shape for a run of London shows, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), who is gay and therefore (naturally, in this type of show) quick-witted. Garland's fifth-husband-to-be, Mickey Deans (Erik Heger), is not so fast on the funny draw, although it's to the credit of the sharp script by Peter Quilter that at least none of the barbs is getting by the square-ish fiancé.
They're both trying to keep Garland straight for an all-important weeks-long stand, which is a hopeless task when, as she gleefully informs them, any corner druggist in the world would be glad to trade her a prescription for a smile.
As she eventually begins to seem less like a diminutive Rosalind Russell and more like a standard junkie, her pleas for the bare minimum of pills that will get her through the next set sound nearly reasonable, at least if you're as invested in getting to the next glorious musical number as these conflicted enablers are in getting her untangled from that couch.
In the second act, things begin to get a bit too schematic. Means, the new beau in her life, turns almost instantly from drug withholder to eager enabler, whereas Anthony seems more eager to urge Garland to quit the shows and retire from show business than most pianists might. You might suppress a cringe as the show's straight man tells the gay accompanist that "you people" love to see her fall down and get back up again, a moment of 21st-century meta-ness the text otherwise manages to avoid.
But if ever there were something that could turn Garland's image back from the reductionism of camp icon to a Greatest Entertainer of the 20th Century who's safe even for straights and non-ironists to love, it's this show. "End of the Rainbow" teeters between Oscar Wilde and "Virginia Woolf" but maybe more important, between serious play and tribute concert.
It's all the better for that indecision, if only because it gives Bennett the chance to flash furtive looks of doomed sadness and command the stage as the biggest, gutsiest belter ever to win the world. Playing a terrified force of nature in a drama is multitask enough, but to leave us wishing we could stay for another three hours just to hear her sing Garland songs, off-book, is another.
Feeling conflicted is a natural response when the show reaches a frenzied climax with her quadruple-time performance of "Come Rain or Come Shine," since we're enjoying a Judy so hopped up on alcohol and Ritalin that the number feels closer to out-of-control rock 'n' roll than Ed Sullivan-era razzle dazzle. Thank God there is a de rigueur post-curtain call number, where the audience can finally bask in Bennett's Garland without feeling guilty that we're pushing her as hard as her mom and Louis B. Mayer ever did.
In the tradition of Cary Grant saying "Judy, Judy, Judy" (which, yes, we know never actually happened), you may find yourself leaving this jump-start of a show wistfully murmuring: Tracie, Tracie, Tracie.
'End of the Rainbow'
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue, L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tue. through Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun. Call for exceptions. Ends April 21.
Price: $20-$110 (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Contact: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission