Judy Garland controlled the world around her with a smile and a song. She could sweet talk her way out of bills, into bars, and back into the good graces of jaded friends. She had lists of people willing to do anything for her; all she needed to do was call. Indeed, Judy Garland had control over everything—except her own life.
In End of the Rainbow, British playwright Peter Quilter exposes just how deep Garland sank before taking her life on June 22, 1969. Focusing on her 1969 London “come-back” tour, Quilter’s script volleys between hotel room and Talk of the Town cabaret. William Dudley’s set design allows for smooth transitions between the two scenes and keeps the play moving almost as quickly as Garland herself.
March 1969 finds Garland (played by the phenomenal Tracie Bennett) engaged to Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), her manager and soon-to-be-fifth husband. She’s in debt—both financially and reputation-wise—and this tour is her last hope at redemption. As soon as Bennett bursts onto the stage, she is an endless current of energy. She runs and hops about the set, flailing her arms and throwing her petite body back and forth. Her face changes by the moment—a mirror reflecting the tug-of-war constantly taking place inside Garland. One moment she’s head-over-heels excited to stage her comeback, and the next she’s in a heap on the couch, refusing to even rehearse let alone perform. This constant shift from happy to sad, exuberant to depressed is exhausting to watch, but Bennett plays the role with impressive ease and grace.
From the time Garland, a.k.a. Frances Ethel Gumm, was 13, she relied on prescription drugs not only to perform, but to function. They kept her awake, made her sleep, and gave her an outlet to escape her prison of fame. The drugs wreak havoc on all of Garland’s relationships, especially her engagement to Deans. Pelphrey plays his role of puppy-eyed lover/frustrated business manager with powerful vigor, bursting with anger toward his drunk fiance in one instant, cradling her in his arms in the next. He knows full well she controls him, and eventually gives in to her demands to turn back to drugs. It’s the only way she can (will) perform, and the show must go on, right?
Even Garland’s piano player, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) was in love with her—and he was gay. Despite their so-called platonic relationship, there’s palpable chemistry between the two, adding to the confusion and tumult that was Garland’s rollercoaster of a life. Cumpsty portrays Anthony with kindness and patience, and when he asks Garland to leave Deans and come away with him, to let him take care of her, you find yourself silently cheering for him. Of course, that’s not the way her story ends.
It’s easy to wish Garland’s life were as clean-cut and beautiful as she appeared to be in her movies. But as End of the Rainbow shows, nothing is that simple—particularly when fame is involved. Bennett expertly portrays what it meant for Garland to be a star in this dynamic, intense, and emotional production, giving what could easily be the best performance ever to have graced the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium stage. By the time she takes her final bow, you wonder what life could have been like for Garland had she been able to finally find her way over the rainbow.
End of the Rainbow
Through March 11
Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls., 612-377-2224