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Tracie Bennett becomes Judy Garland as a dynamo at rainbow's end

The English actress visits L.A. in her Tony-nominated role in 'End of the Rainbow.' Playing the star is draining, but, the actress says, 'I've always had stamina.'

March 16, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Actress Tracie Bennett stars in "End of the Rainbow," a play about Judy Garland.
Actress Tracie Bennett stars in "End of the Rainbow," a play… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

For movie musical lovers in general and gay men of a certain age in particular, Judy Garland represents the alpha and omega of stardom. So it was with some trepidation that I knocked on the apartment door of Tracie Bennett, the English actress who has been uncannily transforming herself into Garland in "End of the Rainbow," Peter Quilter's musical drama about the final chapter of Garland's life.

Garland died tragically in 1969 at age 47. Bennett, just over the half-century mark yet still vibrating with pixieish vitality, is the next best thing to a fantasy meeting with the icon. In my 20 years of interviewing stage luminaries, this was the first time I considered ditching the tape recorder for champagne and roses.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

Bennett's magnetic, Tony-nominated performance — more theatrical X-ray than piano bar knockoff — has already made her the toast of London and New York. Los Angeles will no doubt raise a glass in her honor when the show opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson. To say that I was blown away by her virtuoso turn when I saw "End of the Rainbow" in New York last spring in what was the West End veteran's Broadway debut is an understatement. After the matinee I wasn't sure whether to take to bed or dance down the street. I think I did a bit of both.

Temporarily settled into swanky digs near downtown, Bennett was gamely showing off the Rubin Singer gowns that had been sent over for her Oscar night party-going. The photo shoot had gone into overtime, but the camera flash seemed to energize her. Her husky laugh echoed playfully down the hallway.

Short of stature like Garland, Bennett appears much grander when donning couture and rasping out repartee in her Northern English accent. Although she says she's still a chorus girl in her mind — "a chorus girl with a little camp showbiz person somewhere inside" — she is every inch the star when the spotlight finds her.

Changed into sexy-chic exercise wear for the interview, Bennett wouldn't give too much away about the glittering Oscar night soirees she had attended, but her feline expression left no doubt that she had a helluva time.

She sat down beside me on the floor, within striking distance of an ashtray. Trained as a dancer, Bennett has that habit oddly common to the terpsichorean tribe — smoking. But don't question her lung power. She goes from frenzy to mania in "End of the Rainbow" without stopping to catch her breath. How does she summon the strength, physically and emotionally, to do this histrionic endurance test eight times a week?

"I've always had stamina," she said. "It's a genetic thing. Don't forget, I'm from the era where we played outside, so there was no issue with weight because we were out running around the fields and playing hide and seek. So when you heard your mom going, 'Tea is ready,' you'd run back in, eat, and run back out again until it got dark. They say if you do a lot of exercise until you're 15, your heart's going to be quite strong."

Bennett grew up in Lancashire. Her father, of coal mining stock, became a hotelier; her mother was a literary agent. The environment, she said, was solidly working class and teddibly English. Dinner was a sensible "meat and two veg," the sky was sullen gray and stiff upper lips were the norm.

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A tomboy with a taste for glamour, Bennett was cutting out photos of the Manhattan skyline at 2, immersed in ballet training at 10 and enthralled by movie musicals all through her adolescence, especially those starring Gene Kelly.

"He was gorgeous and danced butch," Bennett exclaimed. "As soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew I was straight. Our world was Northern, black and white, so it was a great thing for my sisters and me to sit down at Christmastime and watch these fabulous MGM musicals. All that color, all those beautiful costumes."

Bennett said she remembers watching Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." "I thought she was cute — that profile! That fabulous voice! How could I ignore the voice? I really believed she was vulnerable. But I felt more of an affinity than any kind of destiny."

Yet Garland kept cropping up in her life. When Bennett was a regular on a British soap opera, she was invited to appear on the celebrity version of "Stars in Their Eyes," a TV program in which famous singers are impersonated in a contest format.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

"I said, 'Don't be ridiculous. I'm not playing a pop star.' They told me, 'You have a Liza-Judy thing.' I laughed and said when I was 16 or 17, just starting out, my friend, a music supervisor I trained with at the Royal Northern College of Music, said that I have a vibrato like Judy's. He said to me, 'You're a little deeper. She's brighter.' He wrote out "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" for me to do on auditions. I had forgotten all about that till then."

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