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Star channels Garland, but the play can't

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett in

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett in "End of the Rainbow" at the Belasco Theatre in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

How good is Tracie Bennett at channeling Judy Garland near the exhausting burnout of her brief, tumultuous life?

The British actress is so good that, for someone not a serious Judy devotee or somebody who gets kicks from watching train wrecks, she is really, really hard to be around.

No doubt, this is not the response desired by producers of "End of the Rainbow," the pseudo-biographical play-with-music that transferred from London with understandable raves for Bennett.

The actress goes for broke -- with amazingly little caution for what bone or vocal cord might get broken -- in her impersonation of Garland just months before her fatal overdose, at age 47, in 1969.

But Peter Quilter's flimsy play, despite the two male characters, is little more than a showcase for the fall and fall of one of the original celebrity icons, with sporadic timeouts for her extravagantly hyperactive performances from her familiar repertory.

We are at London's Ritz Hotel, decorated like Versailles by designer William Dudley. Judy is attempting another comeback with five weeks of concerts at a supper club. She also is attempting a relationship with Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), the callow young club promoter who became her fifth husband.

The always-fine Michael Cumpsty keeps his dignity as her adoring gay pianist. And director Terry Johnson, who won a Tony for his 2010 revival of "La Cage Aux Folles," keeps the manic energy up, despite such eye-rolling exchanges as "No booze! No pills!," inevitably followed by "Just give me the pills!"

The only reason to endure this is Bennett's impersonation. If you look at just her face, the tiny actress with the dancer's body looks surprisingly unlike Garland. Except for moments when she talks like Katharine Hepburn, she has the sound -- the phrasing and the wobble as wide as her character's mood swings. And she has the moves -- leaning back on her spine and grabbing the air as if she thinks it can hold her up.

It is a gutsy portrayal of an artist who, apparently, was too much for herself, who put more into her performances than she got back as a person. I get the message. I just don't get the point.

 

WHAT "End of the Rainbow"

WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

INFO $31.50-$126.50; 212-239-6200; endoftherainbowbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Gusty Garland impersonation, pointless play

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