“End of the Rainbow” on Broadway

Last week I was invited to see the new Broadway show End of the Rainbow, starring Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland. I was skeptical, because I’ve never understood the gay fascination with Judy Garland… but a free ticket to a Broadway show is a free ticket to a Broadway show, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

I’m pleasantly surprised to report that I am very glad that I did. As per usual, though, my review is a bit mixed.

Let’s start with the foundation I mentioned above: I don’t understand why gay men (particularly gay men born in the 1960s or earlier) are often so fascinated by Judy Garland. I’ve never been impressed by her singing, and in fact I typically don’t enjoy listening to recordings of her performance. So imagine my hesitation to go see a musical that basically focuses on her final tour, ripe with bits of song and dance onstage.

Fortunately for me, the musical numbers were truly secondary in the show. Yes, the actress portraying Judy does do several songs in character for us, as if we are the audience in the concert halls where Judy is performing. And yes, Judy Garland aficionados probably enjoyed those immensely, because from what I’m told the actress does a pretty fair impersonation. In my case, I grudgingly sighed each time she started belting out a tune, and patiently waited for the show to return to what I was really enjoying.

The story and the acting were what really captivated me, particularly Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland and Michael Cumpsty as her pianist and friend Anthony. The dialogue was clever and snappy, the jokes were laugh-out-loud funny, the dramatic moments were gasp-inducing, and the pain that Judy and Anthony both demonstrated was truly heartbreaking.

Tom Pelphrey was barely passable as Judy’s new fiancé Mickey Deans, but he rarely managed to convey genuine warmth or compassion and thus came across as a one-note schmuck whose motivations seemed constantly suspect. And Jay Russell was fine, but forgettable, as any other miscellaneous character that the show required. But really, neither of them are what truly drove this production’s magic.

No, this show was about Judy and Anthony, and the performers truly nailed it. Both actors completely immersed themselves in entirely believable characters — at virtually no time in the play did I ever think of them as actors, so spellbound was I by the interactions of Judy and Anthony in front of me.

As a narrative, this show was phenomenal — and if you like Judy Garland’s music, you’ll probably be delighted by the musical performances interspersed throughout. And if you’re tired of Judy Garland singing, the actress (in character) would like you to know she’s perfectly fine with giving it a rest:

I’m very glad that I saw End of the Rainbow, and I suspect most fans of musical theatre (or, frankly, theatre in general) will be also.

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