NEW YORK — History says Judy Garland accidentally died of a drug overdose in 1969. Don't believe it.
The star of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" is very much alive — though barely — in "End of the Rainbow," a British import that opened Monday at the Belasco Theatre. Tracie Bennett, the woman tasked with filling Garland's ruby slippers, is so stunning that she manages to raise the dead.
Set in a London hotel suite in late 1968, a feisty Garland has arrived for another comeback attempt, a five-week set of concerts. She is 46, flat broke and her much-younger fiance — Mickey Deans, a former club owner who will shortly become her fifth husband — is trying, and failing, to keep Garland sober.
"Whenever I drink water I always feel I'm missing out on something," she says at one point, looking mournfully at a glass from the tap. At another, she looks back on a wasted talent: "I didn't need help — I needed pills. No one ever got a grip of that."
Bennett doesn't simply play the fading actress and singer — she IS Garland: haughty, mannered, funny, arch, kittenish, pleading, needy, imperious, tortured and savage. The play, by Peter Quilter, could be maudlin and precious in other hands, but Bennett sings and inhabits an American icon in her final days with such skill and fearlessness that the seams are hidden.
Bennett also peppers the play with husky, vibrato-filled, pitch-perfect versions of songs in Garland's repertoire, including "The Man That Got Away," ''Come Rain, Come Shine" and "Dancing in the Dark." Some are dream sequences, some are part of her lounge act, and all are heavily influenced by how much booze and pills she'd had — the snappish, irritable Judy when she's in withdrawal, and the manic, jerky performer when she's had handfuls of Ritalin.
To be sure, this is not the older Garland of the triumphant, stunning Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. The years since have been very unkind to the Garland we see: Her memory is shot, her beauty smeared and her addiction to "grown-up candy" has even led her to secretly sew up pills in the folds of her clothes. She's a classic, textbook addict, forever spiraling downward. The story is Garland's, but it just as well could be Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston up there.
In the play, Garland is the subject of a tug of war that will determine her fate: On one side is her fiance, played with a touch too much swagger by Tom Pelphrey, who wants Garland clean but grows exasperated by her antics and scared for their financial future. On the other is an admiring pianist — an understated and wry Michael Cumpsty — who is horrified by the Garland he sees and offers to whisk her to a simpler life. While such an angel-versus-devil device sounds reductive, on stage it works.
William Dudley's set is a luxury suite at the Ritz that gets lifted away when it's time for Garland to appear on the stage of the Talk of the Town, the venue for her concerts. Director Terry Johnson's swift transitions between the two sets and the way they sometimes linger together emphasize the dreamy half-private, half-public world of entertainers like Judy, famous enough to be known by just one name.
Playwright Quilter reveals just enough back story to try to explain how Garland got into this state: A mixture of being a child star — "I was up at 4 a.m., 14 years old, 15 hours a day, throat spray, tap shoes, take this, swallow that" — and crushing expectations — "It was so much easier at the beginning. It's a terrible thing to know what you're capable of ... and to never get there.")
Both those themes are hardly touched, and some may feel this biography needs more, but "End of the Rainbow" never intends itself to be anything but a sketch of a frail older woman falling to her demons. It's hard to watch, but even harder not to watch.
That's completely because of Bennett, a veteran of the English stage, but a newcomer here. That should change quickly. At one preview, audience members shot up from their seats and coaxed one more number from Bennett, begging for one more moment, just one more, please, with Judy. There can be no better compliment.