End of the Rainbow – Guthrie Theater – Live Show Review

Directed by Terry Johnson – at the Guthrie through March 11, 2012.
At some point in the career of a legendary artist their outward persona becomes a kind of public cultural property. They start to appear in books, plays, and more recently, films, first as references, later as characters. Mark Twain, for example, has landed in everything from Star Trek to stage plays. At a time when our culture is increasingly locked down by trademark and copyright, this kind of art seems refreshing; here, just like the old days, one set of artists can build on the work and legacy of another and make something new that has value of its own.

End of the Rainbow takes on the troubled persona of Judy Garland in the last weeks of her life and tackles addiction, celebrity culture, and exploitation. The play revolves entirely around the wondrous performance of British actress Tracie Bennett, who becomes Judy Garland in voice, movement, and every visual aspect; the performance is so convincing, so immersive, that even when she seems to be going over the top, it’s impossible not to believe her. This Garland is both a force of nature and a vulnerable woman mired in addiction and trapped by a rolling financial disaster. It’s hard not to feel sympathy, though she is certainly not portrayed as a victim. Garland here is the logical result of a lifetime of exploitation and personal choices. There is not so much an arc for her character, as a steady downward trajectory. This is a play that doesn’t just have an ending, it’s entirely about an ending.

But despite the subject matter, the show isn’t particularly dark. The script is smartly written with plenty of ironic humor, and the composite character of the pianist (Michael Cumpsty) adds a gentler energy to the stage which balances well with Bennett’s Garland. And the musical numbers, in which Bennett’s characterization comes to life to its greatest extent, fill the room, sometimes brilliant, sometimes fragmented. The final rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is the highlight of the show.

This is an easy play to recommend – and an unusual opportunity to see a West End production from London as it stops in Minneapolis on its way to New York. Even the set (built at the Guthrie), which consists of a perfectly opulent hotel room with a surprise inside, will pack up and move east after the Guthrie Run is over. According to the stage manager, who commented during an excellent post-play discussion, this also includes costumes (also created at the Guthrie) such as a glittering pantsuit that evoked both Garland’s style and a bit of that magic that followed her from Oz throughout her career.

The theater was packed and advance reservations are recommended.  The play contains mature themes and strong language. Just like the post-Oz Judy Garland.

Other Resources:
Review of End of the Rainbow at The Morning After Blog (Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine)
Review of End of the Rainbow at the St. Paul Pioneer Press
Review of End of the Rainbow at the Minneapolis Star Tribune (may require subscription)
Minnesota Public Radio interview with Tracie Bennett
Review of End of the Rainbow at Howwastheshow.com
CBS Local (WCCO) feature piece on Tracie Bennett