At the end of the first act, when she delivers Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away" - signature Garland, from the film A Star Is Born- the eerie similarity and galvanizing performance send you into intermission with a dropped jaw.
She has a tough role to play, and not just because of its character. The show, not actually a musical as much as a play with music and backed by a swell onstage orchestra, can't decide which Garland to give us: the one who performs in her prime or the one who is worn down and on her way out.
The script, an ensemble effort whose chief writer is Peter Quilter, is all about Garland's last (and virtually penniless) months of a lifelong pill-pumped existence - a high life that had her wanting to behave well but insisting that she couldn't. It alternates scenes of Garland making her comeback in five weeks of performances at a London club in 1968 with scenes inside her Ritz hotel room (William Dudley's fancy set). But who was the real Garland at that time? Was she the one who could still sing in her younger voice, the way Bennett has her singing until a late scene when she finally comes out on stage as a drugged-out disaster? Or was she the one whose voice was moving toward the exits along with her verve?
I suppose if Bennett were asked to play the latter Garland, it would be hard to conjure up any real sympathy for her - better to play her performing from an earlier era while living in another. But doing that puts us in a sort of time warp.
Director Terry Johnson made a choice, however, and Bennett is so fine an actress, she carries it out and makes you believe, no matter what Garland she gives you, at what age. The singing's the best part of Rainbow because the script is a mixed bag: lots of lame gay jokes, a back-and-forth that demands an exaggerated Garland character who becomes static, some old-chestnut lines and some poignant ones. The story sets up a triangle between her new young manager, Mickey Deans, who would becomes her fifth husband (played by Tom Pelphrey) and her pianist (Michael Cumpsty, impressive on the piano and in his role).
This love-story aspect attempts to pump up a show that's really about a woman who's killing herself methodically - which would make for a sour play without letup. Yet it seems here like extra baggage. When you have someone like Bennett carrying all the really important luggage, though, the trip will be worthwhile.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
End of the Rainbow is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., New York.