This is divas who doped themselves to death week in Los Angeles. Sunday 17 March 2013, the upbeat “One Night with Janis Joplin” opened with a block party with Mary Bridget Davies projecting the impish charm and belting out the blazing vocals of Joplin. Joplin’s will actually funded a party and so the Pasadena Playhouse’s block party seemed fitting. Wednesday night (20 March 2013), Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson, was by turns playful, pathetic and funny despite a surprisingly foul mouth. Bennett’s Garland is broke, heavily addicted to everything and in love with the wrong guy and desperate to be the center of attention. Bennett’s seamless performance is well-worth seeing for many reasons.
Being the center of attention differs from being loved. The play begins by re-uniting Garland (Bennett) with one of her pianists, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) at the London Ritz Hotel in December of 1968. Anthony is politely gay and in love with Garland as many gay men are. Garland is in love with the testy younger man, Mickey Deans (Miles Anderson).
When she enters the hotel, she is fashionably thin and complaining that somehow the hotel is smaller or her room is smaller. Garland at this stage has already been married and divorced four times. She and Deans have just become engaged. She is exuberant, but only until she needs her drugs and then Bennett’s Garland defines the word mercurial. She clever, imperious, simpering, playfully pouting and childishly needly and yet always manages to be charming, or charming enough at just the right time. She’s a practiced addict who knows how to wheedle and manipulate people, particularly people who need her to perform where once it was people who gave her the drugs to make her perform.
Deans had previously been a jazz piano player and a club owner. He was 12 years younger than Garland, tall and darkly handsome. The attraction is there and we understand what Judy Garland wants, and what Deans needs–he’s practical and he’s not used to owing money and believes he can manage a clever, well-practiced addict. Garland proves him wrong. Garland changes ploys and personality quicker than she changes her shoes.
The play shows the wild ramblings of Garland–a woman who can’t recall the questions she’s being asked and sometimes leaves the stage temperamentally to take a taxi to find more drugs. Unlike the Janis Joplin play, we see the effects of Garland’s addiction and her tragic road to an early death. Peter Quilter’s script is wildly demanding and Bennett is up to the challenge, transforming herself into a sly, manipulative woman, desperate to get what she wants. It’s as if Garland is channeling all her talent, all her intelligence and charm into being an almost functioning addict.
Director Terry Johnson adeptly keeps a whirlwind pace between Bennett’s quick personality changes. Bennett’s Garland seems young and old at the same time. Michael Cumpsty as someone who has watched Garland’s slow descent into a tormented always acting actor is touching and his Anthony has the best lines, providing comic relief. Erik Heger as the future last-husband has a thankless role, but Johnson doesn’t have him play it as a villainous gold digger. Heger’s Mickey Deans is a solid guy up against a genius of manipulation who wears him down into being her enabler.
What we don’t see in Quilter’s script is Garland as a mother. In 1968, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli was 22. Minnelli would be filming the 1969 movie “The Sterile Cuckoo.” Lorna Luft, Garland’s daughter with Sid Luft, would have been 16. Lorna and her brother Joey were 14 and 12 respectively when they shared a month-long engagement with Garland at the Broadway Palace Theatre in 1967 for one month.
Garland would marry Mickey Deans 15 March 1969; her divorce from husband number 4 Mark Herron was finalized in January of that same year. Not much is said in this play, but Garland and Deans were reportedly caught by Herron together and Garland’s infidelity was the reason for the divorce. Garland would be dead by 22 June 1969.
Fans of Garland, warts and wallowing in alcohol and all, will want to rush and get tickets. If you prefer the fantasy of the Judy Garland as a star as preserved by the silver screen, then stay well away. For some incredible moments of theater or as a fan of Hollywood history, Bennett’s performance in “End of the Rainbow” is a must see. “End of the Rainbow” continues until 21 April 2013 at the Ahmanson.
Tickets for “End of the Rainbow” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, visiting online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $20 – $110 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.