A glance at Tracie Bennett's Playbill headshot shows that the British actress doesn't look much like Judy Garland. She's petite and thin, but that's about as far as the resemblance goes. Thanks to a big brown wig, heavy makeup and 60s fashions, however, Bennett is made to look quite a bit like the singing legend. Bennett's transformation is hardly skin-deep, though. She throws herself into the role from start to finish – singing, dancing, drinking, smoking, popping pills, fighting, joking, flirting, pulling fits and much more – as she brilliantly captures Garland's downward spiral near the end of her life. It is, simply, an astounding performance that shouldn't be missed.
Written by Peter Quilter (Duets), End of the Rainbow is set in London in December 1968. With her new, young fiancé and manager Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), Garland checks into a suite at the Ritz with lots of luggage and no money to pay the hotel bill. She's about to do a five-week run at the nightclub Talk of the Town. Her Scottish pianist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), is an old friend who doesn't just play the piano. Along with Mickey (whom he doesn't like), Anthony fetches drinks for Garland, soothes her ego, hides her pills, applies her makeup, and tries to get her to the theater on time despite her self-destructive habits.
She says she just needs "a little bit of help" to get her energy up and give her usual bravura concert performances. It turns out Garland had been taking uppers off and on since she made The Wizard of Oz as a 14-year-old. "No wonder I skipped down the yellow brick road," she says wryly. "I could have flown down it." Now when she takes pills she washes them down with booze. Quilter gives us a warts-and-all portrait of Garland in decline. Funny and often charming, she's also crass, demanding, selfish and unreliable. Basically she's a mess, and doing five weeks of shows isn't going to be easy.
During the second act Garland becomes increasingly jittery due to the pills. "I'm frightened," she tells Anthony, realizing that she's losing control. "I can't do it anymore." Somehow she does manage to perform, and we get to see Bennett channel Garland the entertainer as well as Garland off stage battling her demons. Director Terry Johnson and set designer William Dudley make the transitions seamless between the hotel scenes and the nightclub sequences. (A rear wall is lifted, revealing a band; just as quickly Garland goes into performer mode.)
Bennett, who has starred in musicals like Hairspray and La Cage aux Folles in London, does an amazing job of re-creating many of Garland's signature songs like "The Trolley Song Medley." Her mannerisms, facial expressions and manic energy are just right. She even gets tangled up in the microphone cord the way Garland did. While Bennett doesn't sound completely like Garland, she comes pretty darned close. Her emotionally devastating "The Man that Got Away" at the end of act one is a knockout.
The most memorable number in act two is the revved-up rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine." Garland has taken a bunch of pills to get through the show and races around the stage, dancing wildly and singing her heart out. It is scary yet thrilling. The tempo is so fast that Bennett could easily take a tumble, but somehow she doesn't miss a step. It's just one of many impressive feats Bennett pulls off in her phenomenal, full-throttle performance. The role is so demanding that it's a wonder Bennett can do the show eight times a week.
Because her remarkable turn as Garland dominates this play with music, the supporting roles aren't nearly as interesting. We get some biographical tidbits about Anthony, but we don't learn much about Mickey except that he was managing a club when he met Garland. Cumpsty and Pelphrey do their best to flesh out the rather thinly written roles, and Jay Russell juggles three small parts.
It's easy to think of End of the Rainbow as the sad tale of Judy Garland's downhill slide in London. Thanks to Bennett's sensational performance, however, the play reminds us that Garland – despite her demons – was perhaps the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. And by somehow turning herself into Garland for two and a quarter hours, Bennett is keeping the great singer's memory alive in the 21st century.