Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Superb portrayal of the flawed genius that was Judy Garland

At the very top of the short list of the truly great live popular music performers of the Twentieth century there are perhaps no more than four or five names. Elvis of course and Sinatra. Streisand. Piaf.  And Judy – all greats identified by just one name. Maybe Michael Jackson - but for me he would be with Elton, Sammy Davis, Tony Bennett and the others just below the apogee. What these mega stars all had was something beyond celebrity – the fame is taken for granted.  The iconic status of an Elvis Presley or a Frank Sinatra was hard earned and was not just a consequence of talent and shrewd promotion. It was because they had a love affair with their public and in when love, when truly in love, we forgive any minor defects. Not, it has to be said, that the defects of these performers were really minor – but we love them unconditionally warts and all. And none more so that Judy Garland. Rainbow

Judy and Edith Piaf both died at 47. Elvis at 42. Jackson at 51. Unlike Francis Albert or Barbra they didn't mature into a more gentle old age. But they all left behind a heritage on film and recording that will surely captivate for all time – but their true greatness  was in live performance. Elvis, fat, incoherent and drugged to the eyeballs gave some fine performances even to the end (and some lousy ones too to be fair!). And so, of course, did Judy Garland. I never saw Judy live and kick myself for not making the effort back in the late 1960s when she was in London. But astonishingly we now have the opportunity to see Judy in the extraordinary “End of the Rainbow” on tour. We are all used to tribute bands and star impersonators. I’ve seen Sinatra and Presley impersonated often – sometime well, sometimes risibly. But I never for one moment thought that I was watching the original.  Tracie Bennett in “End of the Rainbow” does not impersonate Judy Garland – she is Judy Garland.

It is early 1969 and Garland, her health frail and her finances in big trouble, is engaged to perform at London’s Talk of the Town. She has in tow the 34 year old Mickey Deans who was briefly to be her fifth and final husband a few months later.  Also with her is Anthony her British pianist a fictional character but no doubt based on many in Garland’s retinue who remained faithful despite all her excesses. Judy is briefly “clean” but the tensions of the situation and her fright of performance force her back on the booze and the pills. The dramatic tension is sustained by portrayal of the uneasy ménage à trois between the three main characters and by the big question as to whether Judy will actually be able to perform at all. She needs the money desperately, she cannot even pay her hotel bills. But will she be able to drag herself on stage and if she does will she be able to stand up and sing? Well the answer is yes, and how! Notwithstanding her   problems the old trooper mentality cuts in as we get excerpts from a number of authentic Judy Garland performances. After a claustrophobic opening with Judy and her small entourage cooped up in a small hotel suite we are transported to the Talk of the Town and a large (and very good) band is suddenly seen on stage. Judy belts out some of her familiar repertoire – all memorably performed by Ms Bennett. The Trolley Song is blasted out with all the panache that made it pure Garland, as are nine other numbers.

This show is an accurate, poignant and sad portrayal of a moment in the final few months of Judy Garland's life (she died a few months later of a massive drug overdose). But it is also a tribute to what made her great and as with the small group of other greats her strengths are her weaknesses. Her determination once on the stage to give of her best echoes Elvis and Piaf and Sinatra. But the flipside of this determination was her absolutely uncontrollable and fiery personality that made her hard to work with and impossible to live with. Flawed genius – but which true genius was not similarly flawed?

Tracie Bennett has had a long, distinguished and award-winning stage career – but this is surely her finest performance in a role made for her and to which she brings extraordinary energy, style and pathos. If she retains the part when the show goes to Broadway next year (rather than some American Diva getting the role) she will surely wow the audiences Stateside just is she is doing on this tour. A Five star evening.


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