End of the Rainbow is a wreath for Judy Garland—not a laurel wreath for her power, but a floral one for her funeral. And its sympathy for the great singer is largely of the bad-faith tabloid kind, whose purported “concern” for celebrities is a tool to justify articles and photographs that paint them as grotesques. The Garland of Peter Quilter’s drama, directed by Terry Johnson, is accordingly the wretched one of the very final years. Here, for our terror and pity and amusement, is Garland agonistes: aging, broke, unlucky in love, ravaged by pills, losing control, totally over the whole rainbow thing and determined to drink herself under the table.
The petite, husky-voiced Tracie Bennett was praised lavishly as Garland when End of the Rainbow opened on the West End in 2010, and it’s easy to see why: She straggles and rallies through a monumentally showy role, full of radical shifts of attitude and sequences that replicate the singer’s 1968 run at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. Bennett is highly impressive, but she can’t match Garland vocally (who could?), and is more technically admirable than profoundly affecting; this is the kind of performance that gets lauded for its stamina. And Quilter puts her at the center of a mawkish British spin on Garland, in which a sweet, gay Scottish pianist (the fine Cumpsty) imagines weaning the diva from her vulgar, gigolo-ish American fiancé (Pelphrey) and squiring her off to a cozy life in Brighton. That Bennett performs this show eight times a week is a marvel indeed; seeing it just once kind of wore me out.—Adam Feldman