at the theatre: end of the rainbow

Judy Garland’s life was stranger than fiction. An international star since the age of twelve, the arc of her professional success and personal pain is a study of a life lived in extremis. Accolades and addictions went hand in hand. Triumph and tribulation, too. Could there be a story better suited to the stage?  I think not. Though her life has seen its share of … how shall we say? … creative adaptations – Adrienne Barbeau as Judy in The Property Known As Garland will go down in my personal theatergoing history as a camp classic par excellence – Peter Quilter’s award-winning 2005 play End of the Rainbow focuses on the legend as she prepares for what would amount to a final career comeback at London’s Talk of the Town, just three scant months before a fatal overdose. After successful runs in Australia and the UK, the play finally lands on Broadway with a jolt of electricity I can only describe as seismic. It’s not so much the quality of the play that kept me riveted to the edge of my seat but the roof-raising, star-making performance of Tracie Bennett as the singular Garland. I won’t mince words, this could easily have turned into a catastrophic exercise in caricature (see Barbeau, above). Yet Bennett transcends mere mimicry and fully invests the woman with an excruciating vulnerability that’s at times almost too painful to witness. Emotionally this Garland is like a cat skinned alive, at the end of her tether and tenaciously struggling with inner demons both inspiring and all-consuming. As her adoring (gay) accompanist Anthony, Michael Cumpsty is an adept, if occasional, foil along with Tom Pelphrey as musician Mickey Deans, the final fiancée who both orchestrated her comeback and enabled its demise. But let’s be honest, the men in Garland’s life were little more than extravagant accessories and the same holds true here. The truly spine-tingling moments take place when Bennett is left alone on stage, performing a handful of Garland’s most memorable songs with show-stopping humor and gusto. It’s like stepping through a looking-glass: you’re in London, 1969, and one of the 20th century’s greatest artists is giving you everything she’s got – and then some. Try and remember the last time you saw a play where the audience roared for an encore. Now hightail it to the Belasco, where it happens nightly – and the audience only exits the theater reluctantly.

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at the theatre: priscilla, queen of the desert

The night before Sunday’s Tony Awards I felt a need, a compulsion, really, to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for myriad reasons: I am a big fan of the film; a friend’s ex did the sets; and duh, not since Judy and Liza played the Palace has there been a greater gay quotient on Broadway. Plus, of all this season’s nominated productions Priscilla was the lone holdout – the missing Playbill in my commemorative 2010/11 collection. Let me be blunt, however:  this was not a case of saving the best for last. Belabored would be more apt. Australia is not a country known for its grasp of subtlety. That’s not a put down by any means. Much like America and our own cultural export, what’s so appealing about Oz is its naive and unabashed cultural optimism. It speaks in wide, earnest brush strokes, appealing to the broadest possible constituency. What’s hinted at on entering the lobby at the Palace Theater and soon becomes abundantly clear in the first five minutes of the show is that Priscilla, the intimate and affecting little film was a storytelling anomaly. Priscilla, the musical is determined to reinforce the Australian national zeitgeist – and it has all the trappings of a drunken hen weekend in Brisbane. Now let me go ahead and contradict myself:  for all the self-conscious tackiness on display, the – God, help me – audience participation, the musical numbers that elicit unintentional laughs due to lyrics that just don’t fit, it’s hard to truly hate Priscilla. At its heart the story is a journey of recognizing and accepting the basic human decency that exists inside us all, despite what external appearances might project. To turn one’s nose up at that seems so unseemly, so cynical. Yet I can’t help but still wish that those theatrical wizards from Down Under put as much effort into telling the tale as they did in figuring out how to replace the ABBA songs which were so central to the film – and currently enjoying exclusive use down the street at Mamma Mia – with ones by Madonna. Hats off to Tony Sheldon, who deserved a Tony for Best Supporting Actor, not Leading as he was mistakenly nominated. Every time Priscilla comes perilously close to completely losing her soul – and its often, trust me – Sheldon brings it back to earth as Bernadette, the transsexual with a heart made of Marmite. Miscast in the central role of Tick, Will Swenson does what he can but his voice is not right and his shoulders are not wide enough to carry the show. On the other hand Nick Adams’ shoulders are not only wide, but sculpted – as is every other inch of him. His Felicia not only subverts the entire drag conceit with a well-displayed chiseled physique, but with his wide-eyed optimism and Mickey and Judy attitude, he seems to have dropped in from an altogether different – and vastly more appealing – land of Oz.

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video: going west, a saturated musical interlude

(I had a bit of an oops with the previous encoding of this video – hopefully that’s now been solved.)

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