NEW YORK — Judy Garland, often drunk and occasionally disheveled, in Peter Quilter’s biographical drama “End of the Rainbow,” is rummaging for booze in her suite at the Ritz hotel. She’s wired, and not simply because of the pills she can’t seem to wean herself off of.
As embodied by the astonishing British actress Tracie Bennett in a tour de force at the Belasco Theatre that has Broadway abuzz, Garland is amid a five-week London cabaret gig that’s been arranged to steady her shaky finances. And the reason she’s unable to come down is that, despite her wobbly condition, she’s managed to live up to the crowd’s expectations of her.
“I took the roof off of that place tonight,” Garland tells Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), the young stud who’s her new manager and soon-to-be fifth (and final) husband. “I gave them everything I have. And now we’re gonna get the hell out of here because I just can’t do that again. There’s nothing left.”
For Garland and Bennett alike, performing the role of Garland seems to be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. The difference is that Garland never really had a choice, and in this account of the final chapter of her life, sensationally directed by Terry Johnson, she is portrayed as a victim of her own legend, trapped in a translucent bubble that magnifies not just her fame but also her humiliation.
The gap between the woman and the icon is widening now that MGM’s former darling has skidded into her mid-40s. Makeup can no longer conceal all those dark nights of the soul, and though she’s not the least bit shy about playing the diva, the burden of having to compete with an enshrined image of herself is killing her.
The production, which had its American premiere at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater this year after a successful run in London’s West End, is categorized as a play but is enlivened by Bennett’s formidable impersonation of Garland singing at London’s Talk of the Town at the tail end of her career. Performing manic medleys of such signature songs as “For Me and My Gal,” “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song,” Bennett does more than simulate the increasingly brassy belter whose bell-like voice from her Dorothy years is long behind her. She exposes the warping pressures, internal and external, that accompany a gift of this magnitude.
For me, this is one of four virtuoso performances (along with Audra McDonald’s in “Porgy and Bess,” Andrew Garfield’s in “Death of a Salesman” and James Corden’s in “One Man, Two Guvnors”) that have elevated an otherwise lackluster Broadway season. But it has apparently polarized hard-core Garland fans, some of whom have found Bennett’s presentation to be excessive in its strung-out mannerisms. One Judy junkie — theater critics have more interaction with this type than most — pointed me to YouTube clips to prove his point that Garland wasn’t always a twitchy Ritalin mess in her older years.
Yet Bennett, whose stylishly smoky sound is captivating in its own right, isn’t just imitating the singer — she’s theatrically interpreting her. Yes, the body language is at times as jumpy as a cornered cat. But Bennett heightens facets of Garland’s bearing not to caricature her but to illuminate her inner workings.
This portrayal of Garland brought back to me the provocative idea proposed long ago by literary critic Edmund Wilson in his classic treatise “The Wound and the Bow” that “genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together.” Wilson is principally referring to psychological disorders and the way exceptional artistic ability is often predicated on psychic wounds.
Talent is a mystery, but success requires enormous drive and a refusal to be content with ordinary standards. That perfectionist streak, as treacherous as it is necessary, has to come from somewhere, even if that somewhere is a void, a place that is missing what might have been filled in childhood.
The needy young girl, flailing pathetically after love, is ever present in the portrait of Garland that emerges in “End of the Rainbow.” But so too is the aging superstar who’s no more capable of taking in affection than she is banking applause. Affirmation for her is always suspect and never enough. (Uppers and downers are sadly more reliable in their effect.) When real tenderness comes her way, as it does in a last-ditch proposal put forth by her gay pianist (sensitively played by Michael Cumpsty), it is farfetched and too late.
There’s no denying that Garland, who died at age 47, was a classic Hollywood casualty of drug addiction and alcoholism. But the reasons for Garland’s decline were many, and as a fellow performer — as a fellow stage animal — Bennett brings a more complex understanding to a case that hasn’t lost its hold on the public imagination in the more than four decades that have passed since Garland walked among us.
The flip side of fame is a tabloid staple. But the deeper anguish of an artist whose defining gift is vulnerable to the ravages of time (which includes self-neglect) is less commonly considered. Watching Bennett’s Garland fling herself about her suite at the Ritz in abject terror at having to call up a talent that’s no longer reliable, I couldn’t help imagining Whitney Houston’s similar distress at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the day of her death in February.
In a Broadway performance that will long be discussed, debated and remembered, Bennett conveys, with equal parts magic and heartbreak, the paradox of being both human and immortal.