After a short interview, Tracie Bennett sings “Just in Time” on the Paul O’Grady Show
She might have missed out on an Olivier Award – and surely it was by the narrowest of margins – for her performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, but Tracie Bennett’s insightful and committed interpretation of the role will be her calling card for years to come.
Her six-month sell-out season at the Whitehall Studios will soon be followed by a UK tour and then, early in 2012, a US run in Minneapolis – on the doorstep of Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids – with Broadway the ultimate goal.
In truth, it’s Bennett’s Garland, rather than the play itself, which has generated this momentum. Her Judy, plummeting headlong into an emotional vortex, repels and compels in equal measure, a fascinating study of a legend in rapid decline. And then there are the songs, each embodying in some way the unique spell that Garland held over her audience, even when it was tainted by the lurid voyeurism that too often featured in her late performances.
In the role, Bennett’s portrayal of the Garland concert persona – the twitches, the hair tugging, the restless strutting, that flicking of the microphone lead – is an extraordinary dramatic feat. And her vocal performance, an uncannily accurate blend of Garland’s trademark tics, the on-the-edge tremolo and smudged consonants, goes way beyond mere impersonation.
All of which makes the cast album – for that’s what Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics essentially is – an interesting prospect: are we listening to Tracie or Judy?
Bennett obviously has serious vocal gifts of her own, but they are necessarily subjugated to the role in a way that doesn’t usually impact so specifically on a leading lady’s singing performance. Without its dramatic context, it would have been all too easy for the album to dwindle into mimicry, serving neither the artist nor her subject.
Happily, this is never the case. Co-producers Chris Egan and Gareth Valentine have lovingly created an authentic, contemporary, brassy sound that supports Bennett’s throaty timbre – the key to her approximation of the Garland voice – and allows her to showcase the essential emotional highpoints of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” without ever tipping into parody or sound-alike karaoke.
The handful of songs from the show are joined by a selection from the legendary Carnegie Hall concert – the reference for many of Egan’s arrangements – and the title song from Garland’s last film, I Could Go On Singing. There are also cracking versions of “When the Sun Comes Out”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Chaplin’s evergreen, “Smile”.
At times, the similarity with the real thing is breath taking. Bennett is ever respectful of the legend. But there are also occasional moments when she takes off on a little riff – or in “The Trolley Song”, a chuckle – that reminds you this is a dramatic interpretation rather than an imitation.