Tracie Bennett was stunning. You honestly couldn't tell where Judy Garland ended and Bennett began. Everything from the voice downwards was perfect. The way she held herself, the hand gestures, the manner of playing with the microphone wire on stage - it was very easy to mistake Bennett for Garland. The songs, in particular, are almost undistinguishable. I've bought the CD of Bennett singing Judy's classics and, even as a dedicated Garland fan, I have to concentrate to tell the difference. 'I Could Go On Singing' and 'San Francisco' are two of the best. To give all due credit to Bennett, at that stage in her career Garland was very difficult to imitate - her unpredictability made certain of that.
For those unfamiliar with the play, it takes the starting point of Judy's relationship with the man who would be husband number five, Mickey Deanes. As she struggles to perform, Deanes relents and gives her the pills he has been trying to keep from her. Deanes' pressure on Judy juxtaposes harshly with the kind and gentle treatment she receives at the hands of her pianist, Anthony.
The play could easily descend into hysterical madness. In fact, the audience was in stitches for a fair amount of time throughout, but it was painful laughter, the kind of thing you shouldn't be laughing at but can't help it. A lot of that was down to the perfect combination of Peter Quilter's magnificent script and the delivery of Hilton McRae as Anthony. As the dry and sarcastic pianist, McRae raised laugher through his commentary on proceedings, especially towards the beginning of the play. It is also Anthony who is responsible for one of the painfully funny moments of the play: when Judy steals his bag and takes the pills belonging to a Cocker Spaniel that are inside. Again, it shouldn't be funny - and it actually isn't - but we all had to laugh.
Towards the end of the play, the mood becomes more sombre. Judy is rapidly combusting, which leads to the two most poignant scenes of the piece. The first one occurs is when Anthony is applying Judy's make-up for her; the second is when Anthony proposes that Judy comes to live with him. He tells her she'll have her freedom and no one will force pills down her throat. However, ultimately, she wants the love she thinks she understands from Deanes, rather than the devotion of a gay man. It's an inevitable conclusion but one that is terrible nonetheless.
I can't stress how captivating the play as a whole was. Left alone by Deanes at the end of the first act, Garland sings 'The Man That Got Away'. The audience literally leaned forward in their seats to hear Bennett's rendition of that Garland standard. Although the set is static (the hotel living room Garland occupies with Deanes) it transforms into a stage by the simple lifting of the back wall to reveal the band. A complicated transition isn't needed because it serves as a reminder how intrinsically linked Judy's professional life was with her personal one.
So, yes, I'm recommending this. You don't have to be a Garland fan, although it does help. I was in a daze when I left the theatre after the encore of 'By Myself', and I doubt I was the only one.