Image credit: Photo by Carol Rosegg/Guthrie Theater
“It’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never see yourself get there,” Judy Garland said in 1969. A few months later, at just 47-years-old, she died of an overdose at her London home.
If anything captures the essence of End of the Rainbow, the show about Garland’s troubled life making its domestic debut at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire stage, it is this statement.
End of the Rainbow brings the full force of Garland’s devastation – physical, emotional and financial – to harrowing life. We see snippets of her performances at the Talk of the Town cabaret, but more often the extreme emotional swings she experienced when she wasn’t on stage.
It’s hard now to imagine little Dorothy as a grown-up with severe problems as she is in End of the Rainbow. But this was indeed the reality for Garland, a Minnesota native who became a child star devoid whose career quickly spiraled out of control.
Signed to MGM at just 13-years-old, the fatherless Garland became one of MGM’s most bankable stars. But she was released from her contract in 1950 for her tumultuous behavior and addictions – addictions that were fed by a studio that regularly provided her with amphetamines from her young teen years on (as they did with many of their stars).
Tracie Bennett, in a role she originated in London, does a spectacular job brining this tumult to life. She rages, sparkles, cries, leaps and crumbles in turn as she depicts Garland’s severe emotionality and complete dependence on drugs (note to parents: End of the Rainbowcontains a lot of strong language, on-stage smoking, and violent emotional scenes, so this is one worth getting a baby-sitter for).
Everything down to her frayed hair and running eyeliner evokes the late Garland. Even her voice is shockingly similar to recordings of Garland’s later performances.
Bennet’s nuanced portrayal is heartbreaking to watch at every level. It is so complete, so winsome and possessed, that you can have nothing but pity for her plight. Even at its most terrifying extremes, it is clear that the only thing keeping her alive is the thing that will eventually kill her.
While Bennet rightly captures the limelight, hers is not the only notable performances.
Michael Cumptsy, who evokes a darkly comical/musical Colin Firth in his depiction of Garland’s pianist, shines and while Tom Pelphry, who plays Garland’s final husband and manager Mickey Deans, exhibits less emotional range than the others, he convincingly demonstrates why Garland’s dependency and loneliness were so extreme.
Their performances are made all the more vivid by dark and simple costuming and a set that flips between Garland’s lavish hotel suite and elegant mock-ups of the venues she performed in.
In the end, though, it is Bennett’s bravura performance that makes this a must-see. And while the era has passed, the lessons remain the same today: public life can take a toll on our most beloved stars, and fame, whatever its benefits, does not come without its share of potential pitfalls.
+ End of the Rainbow continues at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage through March 11. For more information visit guthrietheater.org.