‘Rainbow’: Judy Garland at the edge of the abyss

Tawdry but mesmerizing, the Peter Quilter play “End of the Rainbow” has been dividing audiences over its portrait of Judy Garland ever since it opened on Broadway in April.

The die-hard Garland fans are disgusted by the picture of their idol six months before she died of an overdose in 1969 — strung-out, trying to fulfill a concert engagement in London, and heading toward another disastrous marriage to a manager/lover.

The play does have a “Mommie Dearest” tabloid trash aura around it, but it also serves as a vehicle for a spectacular performance by Tracie Bennett as Garland.

Bennett acts the part to the hilt just as Faye Dunaway went about as far as she could go in the Joan Crawford bio-pic. Bennett doesn’t really look or sound much like Garland, but the way that she seems to embody the star’s frantic, drug-addled style of talking and moving, in the final years, is uncanny.

The Broadway chat rooms have been humming since the show started previews in March with angry attacks by Garland cultists who say Bennett’s singing is a desecration of the star’s memory, but they are missing the point (and the period in which the play is set). Garland’s voice was shot by the mid-1960s but she could still summon up the energy — and the interpretive skill — to put across a song so well that the audience didn’t really care that she couldn’t hit the right notes anymore.

In Act One, Bennett gives us a glimpse of one of Garland’s better performances at the Talk of the Town in 1968 and we can see why audiences were still dazzled by a singer who had lost her voice. It’s hard to imagine a bigger challenge for an actress than to sing badly but with bravura style and energy — and Bennett pulls it off. 

“End of the Rainbow” also presents a harrowing but sympathetic view of Garland’s drug addiction. The star’s new manager-lover Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) is disgusted by Garland’s craving for liquor and pills — and tries to withhold them from her — but finally gives in when he sees that there is no way she can function without them.

The fact that Quilter and his star are able to mine so much humor from such a terrible story is quite amazing.

The place where Garland ended up in 1968-69 has been occupied by many other show business figures — from Marilyn Monroe to Whitney Houston — which gives “End of the Rainbow” a broader scope than many of its detractors have been able to see.

Joe Meyers