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First Nighter: End of the Rainbow Disses Judy Garland Bigtime

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Libel is actionable legally, and I wouldn't go so far as to cry "libel," while dismissing with disgust End of the Rainbow, the so-called play about Judy Garland that's just opened at the Belasco. I will say that, while character assassination doesn't usually lead to lawsuits (possibly because difficult to prove), character assassination is exactly what playwright Peter Quilter is committing in a fifth-rate work featuring Tracie Bennett's second-rate impersonation of the iconic performer.

Mostly set in William Dudley's undoubtedly accurate representation of a swanky London hotel suite, the two-act hatchet job purports to illustrate how recklessly the singer behaved in private and public during a five-week 1968 stint at the famed Talk of the Town, which is also shown during some sequences. In the mad pavane that takes place only a few months before Garland's death, she's joined by fifth and last hubby Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), who's sometimes dictatorial and sometimes obsequious. Also on hand to endure Garland's charmless mood-swings is swishy Scottish accompanist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty, employing an in-and-out accent), who's given no last name -- perhaps because he's a composite of several accompanying pianists.

During the period covered, this Garland claims she's found true happiness at last with Deems. To prove it, she frequently jumps his bones. Yet, at other times she comes to blows with him for denying her the Ritalin-and-whiskey cocktails from which at other moments she insists she's ready to abstain. While humiliating hotel management on phone calls over bills she's not paying, she also spends repetitious time trying to duck performances for (unseen) impresario Bernard Delfont.

In varying degrees of sobriety, this Garland does show up for the Talk of the Town appearances. This gives Bennett the opportunity to reprise the former Frances Gumm's signature songs. Throughout the tremolo-filled warbling, she certainly sounds more like her predecessor than when she's haltingly and breathily speaking the dialog attributed to Garland.

And hey, does Quilter save "Over the Rainbow" for last? What do you think? Does director Terry Johnson see to it that Bennett delivers a terrifyingly manic version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" supposed to mimic Garland at her hopped-up worst? What do you think? N.B.: For this egregious Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer turn, Bennett receives appreciative applause from an audience totally missing the dramatic point?

No one familiar with Garland's career will deny she suffered from ultimately debilitating drug and alcohol problems. Records dating from her marvelous yet cruelly exploitive Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer days establish as much. Garland may also have had the habitually dirty mouth she has in this treatment. Why wouldn't she, considering the milieu in which she received her lessons on real life?

But to show her exclusively as a desperate pill-popping, booze-swilling, four-letter-word-spouting monster says nothing more than that a group of people (Quilter, director Johnson, the two handfuls of producers) have decided they stand a chance at making a heap of dough trashing the Garland name to a public assumed to want nothing more from their entertainments than something on a Jerry Springer level. Maybe the purveyors have been affirmed in this regard by the positive response in London, from whence the opus is imported.

Through much of her troubled times -- and they were legion -- Garland almost never lost her sense of humor. She was a truly witty woman, who may have had to hone her humor as a survival technique. This Garland is consistently crude when Quilter thinks he has her cracking actual jokes. She's unrelievedly petty and pouting, someone whose enormous talent is in total shreds -- except on the occasions she's able to go on songbird automatic-pilot.

Among other affronts to which the perpetrators of End of the Rainbow lower themselves is putting on display a vulgar piece that might be seen by Garland's three children -- for whom she regularly expressed deeply-felt maternal love. Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Joey Luft have to be well aware of their mother's minuses as well as the pluses ignored here. Noticeably, not one offspring is mentioned through the proceedings -- perhaps according to lawyers' advice.

On their behalf and on behalf of Garland's fans (many slammed for being homosexual stereotypes who reveled in the star's troubles), a reviewer is obligated to say, "Shame on those behind the miserable enterprise."