End of the Rainbow at The Guthrie

A force of nature: Tracie Bennett as Garland
Carol Rosegg

Like a proto-rock-star, Judy Garland became as famous for her offstage antics as for her singing and acting chops late in her life. Still beloved by fans, Garland ran through alcohol, pills, and husbands like there was no tomorrow. And by late 1968, no tomorrow was very close at hand. Peter Quilter's Broadway-bound End of the Rainbow barely scratches the surface of the story, leaving most of the intriguing implications of the play's three relationships unexplored, with the characters remaining largely static from beginning to end. Thankfully, Tracie Bennett makes much of that moot with her arresting performance as the famed singer.

Set in a gilded suite just as a five-week stay at London's Talk of the Town is about to begin, End of the Rainbow is a three-way dance among Garland, new manager and husband-to-be Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), and Scottish pianist/stand-in for the Garland-loving gay community Anthony (Michael Cumpsty). Over several weeks, the two men work to get Garland ready to perform.

Of course Garland performed at every moment of her life. A life on stage and in films had calcified a brittle outer shell that was supported by the constant diet of pills and booze. At the top of the play, Mickey has forced her to go cold turkey. For much of the play, the struggle between being straight and heading back to the various bottles dominates the action, as Mickey domineers and Anthony gently nudges her to stay on the narrow path.

For a good chunk of the first act, the play feels as trapped as Garland in its pretty prison. Thankfully, we all get to break out once the Talk of the Town musical numbers begin. Bennett brings the entire Garland live persona here, belting her way through standards as if her life depends on it. Still, considering this is End of the Rainbow, things get worse from here. Garland picks and pokes at Mickey, pulling diva moment after diva moment, showing us that no matter who may be the "manager," only one person is in charge.

Bennett has honed the character through the play's West End incarnation, and she arrives at the Guthrie as an absolute force of nature. Quilter's script does give her rare moments of vulnerability, but they tend to distract as much as enlighten. I get the sense that by this time in her life the shell is all that is left of Garland, and searching for what's left inside is just a fool's errand. Bennett tries gamely, but her performance is at its best when it brings out Garland's outsized personality and presence.

The men have it worse, as they have been crafted as stand-ins–Mickey as all the men Garland loved and lived with through the years, Anthony as the gay men who admired her with passion. (Don't forget, the Stonewall rebellion was set off in the wake of Garland's death in 1969.) Both Pelphrey and Cumpsty do solid work to extend their characters beyond tough-guy club owner or queeny pianist with a brogue, even when Quilter's script works against them. Pelphrey ends up with more interesting edges, as his character's motivations are far more conflicted: There's a desire to help a woman he has fallen in love with, but also the eventual resignation that she is in control, and even a rage at those others who would claim her as their own.

Cumpsty gets his moments as well, though without much of a sense of forward momentum. There is one sweet and wistful scene, though, when he tries to convince Garland to come and live with him in Brighton, knowing all the time that there isn't a chance in the world that the woman he has loved for years will join him.

The characters' general stasis is the heart of my issues with the play. The actors do fine work, the show (directed by Terry Johnson) looks and sounds great, and the hook of the story is worthy, but it never really goes anywhere. Only Mickey goes through a change, as his desire to present a new and improved Garland for the world eventually gets worn down. Even the eventual end of the story is merely told to us in the show's dying moments, robbing the audience of that final, tragic change in Garland's life.

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