New York City Theater
“End of the Rainbow”
Arms thrust into the air, they reach for the stars – or perhaps just a high note. These are divas, real divas who have a right to be oversized and overwhelming –and whose trajectories are available on CDs.
They’re Judy Garland and Eva Peron and they currently have a couple of Broadway shows built around them. Judy, in the person of impressively intense Tracie Bennett, is gutting her heart out in the flimsy-florid “End of the Rainbow.” A block away, Elena Roger is Eva in a sterling revival of “Evita” in which, unfortunately, she’s the hole in the doughnut.
The revival of “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s take on Argentine dictator Juan Peron and his wife, is a dark, funereal tale that details the lengths to which insatiable self-worshippers will go to grab power. As directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, both gifted, the evening is undeniably vigorous. (It’s also melodic, of course: Just try getting “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” out of your head.)
Morbid, ghostly, sardonic and not a little frightening, the production features ethereal military figures to remind us how easily the masses are subjugated. It’s also loaded with sexual innuendo and not just because dear little Eva slept her way to the top.
Rather, for sex we can thank the oozing sensuality and charm of Ricky Martin as Che, the amorphous, beckoning, jaundiced narrator. As originally played by Mandy Patinkin, Che was the revolutionary Che Guevara. Martin has a different, equally valid approach. “I’ve got your number,” he seems to be saying to Evita, goading the audience to realize what an utter phony she is. It’s a forceful performance that reaches its apogee when Che and Eva dance a tango of the damned.
The always first-class Michael Cerveris is both menacing and soothing as Juan. Wise to his wife’s wiles, he cynically uses her to court the populace, content to let her have the spotlight, as long as he’s manning it.
Come we must to Elena Roger as the calculating, hypocritically saintly Evita. As an actor, Roger is seductive and commanding. As a singer, she’s irritating, screeching through her high register. Her impact becomes less and less, dribbling away into nothingness.
Dribbling away is hardly the fate of Tracie Bennett whose fierce, over-the-top performance in Peter Quilter’s “End of the Rainbow” is as scary as watching someone have a nervous breakdown. Devious, self-centered, funny, demanding, this warts-and-all Garland exists on the pills and liquor that give her “a little bit of help to sing.”
And sing she does, backed by a terrific five-piece band: “The Trolley Song,” “The Man That Got Away,” a manic “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Get Happy” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Interspersing Garland’s public engagement at London’s Talk of the Town with her personal demons, the play is as dangerous and wearying as a game of killer squash.
Back at the hotel, she fights with her manager and last husband Mickey Deems (a smarmy Tom Pelphrey) and humiliates her gay accompanist, Anthony (a superb Michael Cumpsty) to whom she confides a pill-besotted childhood and a loveless adulthood. She throws herself and various objects around the place and even gets down on all fours, barking.
Under Terry Johnson’s crackling direction, Bennett’s Garland is more impressionistic than realistic, a painter’s portrait not a photographer’s, exaggerating everything from Garland’s gestures to her vibrato. It’s a testimony to Bennett’s stamina that she somehow crawls to the finish line and we, though exhausted, can’t look away.
That these icons died early -- Eva at age 33 of cancer, Judy at age 47 of an overdose -- adds to the tragedy of their flaming downward spirals. We attend to their funerals and remember lives we’re glad someone else led.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 19, 2012