Watching Tracie Bennett lose herself as Judy Garland and put herself through an astounding, punishing performance, is to watch a legend being made.
“End of the Rainbow,” at the Belasco Theatre, revolves around Garland’s troubled performances in London, where she was at her most tragic.
Yet the talent — that voice that just makes you happy to have ears — could not be suppressed. No matter how high and crazy she got, no matter how many lyrics she forgot, she was that very rare true star.
The word “star” has become so cheapened. People with no apparent talent, who shop, strut and display bad attitudes and worse taste, are called stars when they are in front of cameras on a reality show.
Judy Garland was a real star.
She had that voice and that elusive quality that made you want to watch her. No studio, coach, school or agent can imbue someone with it. That’s why it’s so rare.
And yes, I was inculcated from a very young age.
To even dare to portray Garland, the actress must have that herself. And Bennett, who starred in this on the West End, is a star. The gut-wrenching performance — which at one point literally is — has wonderful writing, and the character makes some very self-aware jokes.
Talking about growing up on a studio lot and her classmates, she says, Deanna Durbin had one eyebrow and Elizabeth Taylor “was so charming you wanted to run her down. It’s not a way to live. We all turned out very peculiar.”
Certainly many in the audience likely know as much as possible about Garland’s last months. But does anyone really ever know what went on between her, an accompanist (Michael Cumpsty, “Sunday in the Park with George” on Broadway; “Boardwalk Empire” on TV) and her fiance, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey, “The Good Wife,” “Blue Bloods”)?
Garland is acerbic, needy, astute and funny. She’s insanely talented. Even when she has nothing left to give, her fans want more, and what comes through is how much her fans adored her.
She had an astounding capacity for pills and booze, which cut her life short. Those who had to deal with her were often frustrated.
“How dare you threaten me?” she yells into the phone at the unseen hotel manager. “You will wait for your money like everyone else.”
She threatens him with jumping from the window of her suite. “It’s not going to look good for you when you have Dorothy all over your carpet,” she says.
As wonderful as Bennett is, and her performance cannot be overpraised, Cumpsty as gay pianist Anthony (do I need to say he worships at the shrine of Judy?) holds his own against her. He is perfectly droll and protective. Pelphrey, in the thankless role as her manager and then widower, is appropriately smarmy.
But Bennett is the force. Her voice is superb and it feels as if she is not a mimic but somehow channeling Garland. The last time I felt this way was watching Patti LuPone in “Gypsy.” It’s the sort of performance than when it ends you need that moment to snap yourself back to reality and jump to your feet.
Like the word star, ovations have become cheapened just because so many are given so easily. But to watch Bennett as Garland self-destruct on the stage, and reach deep into herself to give the audience this performance, is to watch perfection.