Monday, February 13, 2012

“End Of The Rainbow” At The Guthrie

Well . . .

As Joshua mentioned over a week ago, we did, as planned, attend “the Judy Garland play” this past weekend.

Not only did Josh and I go, but my parents went as well—as did my sister-in-law and my middle brother.

Of the adult members of my family, only my older brother had no interest in seeing a production that has generated much interest in the Twin Cities. In fact, my older brother made great fun of us and our “inexplicable” curiosity to see a play about a silly show-business figure—and he happily stayed home Saturday night to attend to my nephew and niece.

The text of the play was not good. It was of a standard well-known to viewers of low-quality, low-budget biographical movies made for television—and seemed to have been written by a committee of reporters on loan from Variety.

The show-biz bio is such an inherently-corrupt genre that it should have died out decades ago. For whatever reason, the genre has exhibited great endurance, probably because segments of the population are fascinated by the lives of celebrities. Nonetheless, the question must be asked: what is this sort of thing doing onstage at The Guthrie?

Normally I am immune to show-business proceedings as well as plays and musicals about show-business proceedings, but so many persons whose opinions I respect had offered acclaim to the actress portraying Judy Garland that I, too, had eagerly wanted to see the play.

The actress, Tracie Bennett, gave a brilliant portrayal. I would describe her performance as sensational. She somehow got under the skin of Judy Garland, and exposed both the demons that drove Garland to an early death and the gamine quality that made Garland a star. Often the dueling natures were on display at the same time.

During the play, Bennett was called upon to sing snippets from several songs Garland had made her own—and it was almost unbelievable how Judy Garland-like were Bennett’s renditions of such songs. Bennett is surely offering the performance of her career.

The play is set in London in late 1968, several months before Garland’s death. Garland is seen interacting with her agent (and soon-to-be final husband) as well as her accompanist, both of whom are trying to get Garland through a difficult London engagement. The dialogue is sometimes biting and cruel, and other times full of wit and laughter—yet the writing never goes anywhere and the characters remain cardboard Hollywood “types” borrowed from a thousand MGM backstage musicals. The play is more series of vignettes than fully-developed drama, a scattered gallery of glimpses into the backstage machinations that preceded Garland’s public performances at the end of Garland’s career. The play’s author has no insight to offer about events or personages, and he does not do a good job of shaping his material. The viewer learns nothing about Garland that has not been revealed in countless old magazine articles and mass-market biographies.

And yet . . .

As a vehicle for Bennett, “The End Of The Rainbow” was a pleasure to sit through. Without actually offering an impersonation of Garland, Bennett somehow made the audience believe that Bennett WAS Judy Garland for two-and-a-quarter hours. Bennett was, quite simply, a phenomenon.

After the production moves to Broadway next month, I predict that Bennett will be the recipient of incredible amounts of press coverage bordering on adulation—and I will be amazed if Bennett does not win this year’s Tony Award for Best Actress In A Play.


Judy Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a town otherwise known for producing hockey players.

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