At first glance, last year's Tony-nominated End of the Rainbow and 1995's Tony-winning Master Class share a number of similarities. Each has a real-life, late-career superstar as its subject, and each features a piano accompanist character who serves as supporter/confidante. Both plays have one room as the primary setting, although they periodically break their respective set's back wall to transform it into a performance space. And both works are by renown writers with serious diva fixations: Judy Garland in the first instance and opera's "La Divina" Maria Callas in the second.
Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, now having its West Coast premiere by Center Theatre Group (CTG) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through April 21st, takes place in 1968 London. Garland (played by Tony nominee Tracie Bennett, more on her later) has arrived with her new manager and fiancé, Mickey Deans (the very good and grounded Erik Heger), to perform a five-week series of shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Waiting for them in Judy's lavish but not-big-enough hotel room is her longtime accompanist, Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), who is apparently an amalgamation of the numerous, frequently gay accompanists with whom Garland worked.
Mickey has cut Judy off of alcohol and drugs in advance of her financially-necessary London run. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Garland's troubled life and premature death in 1969 will realize its only a matter of time before she jumps off the wagon. Indeed, by the end of Rainbow's first act, the girl is high as a kite and literally barking like a dog.
It may all be historically accurate but Quilter's play, directed here by Terry Johnson, often takes a demeaning, borderline-sensationalistic approach to Garland and her tragic addictions. Quilter also implies, strangely, that Garland's legion of gay fans were to blame for her downfall, with Mickey telling Anthony at one point, "You people love to see her fall down and get back up again." The playwright and director wisely avoid camp but watching Garland's decline in End of the Rainbow is at times literally, sickeningly akin to watching a train wreck.
Bennett's galvanizing performance goes a long way toward redeeming this boozy spectacle. While arguably a bit too gimmicky and histrionic at times (even though it is a matter of public record that Garland could be histrionic), Bennett is a force of nature who makes a more than credible Judy. This is especially evident during the show's several musical numbers, where Bennett sings such Garland classics as "Just in Time," "The Trolley Song," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and, yes, "Over the Rainbow," backed by a terrific band that magically appears whenever that back wall flies up. Bennett's vocal strength and approximation of Garland's increasingly insecure and erratic behavior at several points convinced me I was actually watching Garland, and makes the play's denouement genuinely heartbreaking.
In terms of writing finesse, gay playwright Terrence McNally's Master Class is definitely the superior work. It is now enjoying a worthy if imperfect revival at Long Beach's International City Theatre (ICT) that runs through April 14th. McNally presents Callas leading a tutorial in opera performance to a trio of eager, if dangerously naïve, students. Most winningly, the audience also comprises the student body, with the blunt Callas speaking directly to and otherwise engaging viewers throughout.
As Callas, Gigi Bermingham (a veteran of TV's Hart of Dixie and other shows, films and plays) seemed a bit restrained on opening night; Callas should be an unquestionably commanding (or, as she states in the play, "conquering") presence. Some of Bermingham's transitions between recollections from Callas's past and the present moment were also rushed. Whether the result of opening night jitters or faulty direction on the part of Todd Nielsen, I encourage Bermingham to make Callas bigger vocally and in terms of physical presence and to take her time during the transitions.
The supporting cast is excellent. As Callas's "victims," Danielle Skalsky, Jennifer Shelton and the über-talented Tyler Milliron (he also dances, paints, writes music and makes short films) are full-voiced and full-blooded. In addition, James Lent serves well as the session's adoring yet gently reassuring accompanist.
Whereas I recommend End of the Rainbow for Bennett's reincarnation of Judy Garland more than for the material, I recommend ICT's Master Class primarily for McNally's exceptional, quotable writing despite its fine performances. Long after Bennett has moved on to other roles, McNally's will be the play that lives on.
End of the Rainbow (CTG): B-
Master Class (ICT): B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.