The best moment on Broadway this season, occurs half way through the second act of Peter Quilter's last days of Judy Garland bio "End Of The Rainbow". Garland has a 5 week residency at London's "Talk Of The Town" in 1968 and her much younger fiance Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) and her pianist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) are having nothing but problems keeping her away from booze and pills. The mix will kill her within a year. Finally, the only way Mickey can get Judy back on stage is to pile her up with Ritalin.
On she goes and Tracie Bennett's Judy performs a straight up terrifying version of "Come Rain Or Come Shine". If you've heard Judy sing this on the classic Live At Carnegie Hall from 1961, you'll know the arrangement: it mixes the cymbals like rain drops with beats like stampeding horses. At the Belasco, Tracie speeds it up… it is her heart beating faster and faster, racing, hopped up, crazed, drug addled: it is, not just an impersonation of Garland at a particular moment of a life, not just a an actress playing a drug actress, or destroying what should be a triumph ON PURPOSE, it is a glimpse into whoever or whatever the flawed Goddess Garland was.
So go and see it fast because the Belasco, where "End Of the Rainbow" is playing was half empty when I saw it on Saturday.
Judy is portrayed with as much empathy and feeling as possible and as we eavesdrop into her final days as yet another comeback suffers through to its conclusion, the play becomes more than just Judy. I am thinking that it is also Michael Jackson's story. Again in London, again, an overlong residency (Jackson didn't even make it) ends in disaster.
Sure, it is all a little National Enquirer but to a point: as Judy, with that mix of vulnerability and ego, ecstatic foul mouthed exuberance and self-aware been there done that in your face honesty, is a full on look into one of the greatest artists, and celebrities, ever. It is a disaster play, and also not really a play, the arc isn't quite right for theater, it isn't quite a story. It doesn't have an ending, though the ending should've been easy enough to write: the last performance would've done it. And it is so shut in (one set that doubles for Judy's hotel room at the Ritz and the club she is performing in) and there are so few characters -four, actually, and mostly just Judy and her two men, that it doesn't seem quite big enough for Broadway. The small band that play behind her in the club add heft.
It still works brilliantly.
Great artist falls apart is a cliche, and I place Judy somewhere after Billie and Ella as far as greatest singers go, but as Tracie falls apart in her Hotel room between the two men who love before being on and off on stage at "The Talk Of The Town", she is bother bigger and as big as herself. When she begs Mickey to love her and not Judy Garland, to let her run away from her responsibility and stop being Judy but just a woman in love living in a little house, it is like "The Last Temptation Of Christ" -Judy wants to be allowed to be moral, but she can't be. She wasn't. Fed pills since a pre-teen, tethered to her fame, and broke any way, she can't escape her fate. Judy can barely struggle against it.
Tolstoy once wrote, I paraphrase, that the past is fated to have happened, the future is random, and God is the diviner between the two. Judy always dies of a drug overdose, the same way Jesus never manages to escape his cruxification: it is their artistry and it is their fate. Tracie Bennet connects the fate and the artistry together in a terrific performance. the best on Broadway. See it before it closes.