March 19, 2055, Broadway: the Belasco Theater in New York and it is opening night for the previews of “I Will Always Love You,” the story of the last days in the life of Whitney Houston which takes place, almost in its entirety in the Hilton Hotel suite where she was found dead just hours before her anticipated performance at a pre-Grammy party…

Whoops, it is March 19, 2012 and the Belasco Theater in New York is debuting the preview of End of the Rainbow, the story of last brilliant weeks in the life of Judy Garland.  It takes place almost in its entirety in a hotel suite in London where, with fits and starts, she delivers what will tragically be her final comeback tour.

End of the Rainbow is not a musical, but does feature a half a dozen bring-the-house-down songs made famous by Judy Garland whose 1961 “live” two-album set, Judy At Carnegie Hall, won a then-unprecedented five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance.  Back then, it was the fastest-selling album of its time, on the charts for ninety-five weeks, and # 1 for thirteen of those.

Just as occurred with the real-life Judy Garland, Ms. Bennett doesn’t let us simply observe and enjoy her performance; she compels us to participate in it, loving her vulnerabilities, her razor-sharp wit and humor and voice that by that time in her life had seen too many vodkas, too many cigarettes. (Click here to see Judy Garland’s screen-test for Valley of the Dolls.)

The great theater critic, Vincent Canby,  wrote in the New York Times on Aug. 1, 1967, “that the voice — as of last night’s performance, anyway — is now a memory seems almost beside the point.” He concluded that all the performers on the bill were good, “but it is Judy who is great. And let’s not worry about her voice.”

Another writer called a typical Garland appearance “more than a concert …it is a tribal celebration.”

Tracie Bennett, in her Broadway debut, channels all the magical elements of Judy Garland while avoiding the trap of an outright impression.  She is the first to  point out “there are many men who already do that better.”  Somehow, she captures all the pathos, artistry, fragility and final unravelling of the star who made 32 feature films and was nominated for two Oscars (for A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg.)  Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade,  and For Me and My Gal rank among Hollywood’s greatest musicals.  Still, no performance has been more widely seen, or loved more than her portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

Peter Quilter, the writer of End of the Rainbow, has tapped into Judy Garland’s ability to make us laugh, then cry, then find ourselves doing both at the same time.  Twice I caught myself laughing at something that wasn’t funny at all.  The second time I realized  it was the writer,  was once again, so deftly straddling comedy and tragedy.

A true force of nature, Tracie Bennett captures the joy and torment that went into Garland’s concerts that  numbered over 1100 including three record-breaking Broadway engagements at the Palace Theater and an unprecedented week at the New York Metropolitan Opera House where, in 1959 she became the first pop singer to perform there. (Click here to see a link to a spectacular 1963 performance at the London Palladium.)

Exploring the  end of her life ,  we struggle with her in that London hotel room as two men try to try to prop her up for six weeks’ of performances at London’s Talk of The Town in 1969: her  gay piano player (played by Michael Cumpsty) and young fiancee  Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey,) soon to become her fifth husband.  They certainly don’t like or trust one another, but genuinely love her.   Each is ill-prepared for the impossible task at hand that carries a new complication;  beyond the ravages of pills and booze, Judy Garland is also broke –“no food money” broke as her daughter, Lorna Luft, has described it.

Which brings us back to all the reminders of Whitney Houston, whose specter is likely to haunt a younger audience not as familiar with Judy Garland.  Then again I suspect  Google and YouTube search numbers for Judy Garland are about to skyrocket.

Once upon a time, the Hollywood Bowl was the scene where a record-breaking crowd sat outdoors in the rain for two hours to listen to Judy Garland sing twenty-four songs, and four encores — and then made her repeat an earlier song to close out the evening.   I predict the same would happen today with a performance of End of the Rainbow. 

On this night after Tracie Bennett took her bows, choking back tears as her Broadway debut was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation, she channeled Ms. Garland once more, treating her newly-bonded audience to a rousing and uplifting encore.

Personal disclosures: My late father-in-law, Sydney Simone, was the orchestra leader at London’s Talk of the Town for many years which included  the six-weeks’ performance of Judy Garland.  Our family has a small financial involvement in the soundtrack album.