(Review by Tulis McCall)
I am not a Judy Garland groupie. And bio dramas rarely work for me. But I am still thinking about this one.
Tracie Bennett has managed to capture the breadth and depth of the wild arc of the pendulum that was Judy Garland. And of course there is the music and the singing, which is not an imitation or an impersonation but rather an homage. Garland was a force of nature, and Bennet has tapped into her brittle and vibrant core.
This short story takes place just months before Garland died in London from an overdose of drugs. She was 47, an age that is a fading memory for many of us. She was in London getting ready for a comeback, complete with a former accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) and her soon to be fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey). Judy is, in the words of the author, optimistic and playful. She is also on the wagon, off of which she will soon tumble. She still has enough bravado in her tank to complain that the suite is too small and to decide that management doesn’t need to be paid in a hurry. Thus the story is set and Judy is now in the push-me-pull-you grips of these two men as well as her public as well as the Devil on her shoulder. There is a sort of plot here that is only mildly laced with the references no one needs to hear, not us who know the story so well, and not the two men who are serving her. Instead we see her actually working, rehearsing with Anthony, performing at The Talk of the Town and giving an interview that she mangles. There is the opening night where she escapes their grasps and heads out on the town for a bender. There is the obligatory fight with Mickey. And we are off on a downward spiral.
But Garland does not go gentle into that good night. She brings humor and denial and hope all in one basket. She swings from point to point and fights until the very end. This is a woman who wants to live but has lost any notion of control.
Garland’s music is woven in and out of the story as both performance and reaction. The segues are seamless as the set opens and closes on the six person orchestra tucked in the back (and what a pleasure to listen to!). Cumpsty is the glue for much of this both in character and performance. Without him Bennett would have nothing against which she could fling herself. Whether by deliberate biographic choice or not, Pelphrey does not seem to stand up to her as much as he endures her.
This is a bleak and penetrating production - a sad commentary on a woman who refused to give up until she snuffed out her own candle. Bennett, too, gives it every ounce of energy she has, and in the end you may be exhausted. But not too exhausted to forget the tale.
"Tracie Bennett’s ... is sensational — in every sense of the word."
Charles Isherwood for NY Times
"The story regularly shifts to the club and Judy belts hits like “Get Happy,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.” These are the moments when 'Rainbow' beams brightest."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"Tracie Bennett’s tour de force ... You can’t stop watching."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"It’s theatrical magic. ... Rush to ...catch Bennett and revel in her—and Garland’s—glory."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"It's what you might expect from a drag cabaret performer, though it lacks the subtlety."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"It’s trash. Judy swills, Judy sings, Judy vomits, Judy goes on singing."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"There’s something distancing about this whole macabre sideshow."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Bennett certainly acts the hell out of this hellish role."
Steven Suskin for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...