Urban legends about Judy Garland, nee Frances Gumm, get softened around the edges and the popular music of the decade leading up to her getting cast as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz” gets splendidly evoked in CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ in its world premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House. The book by Marc Acito, with consultation by Garland authority John Friske, dutifully acknowledges Gumm family problems like father Franks Gumm’s dalliances with men and mother Ethel's provision of pills to Judy for weight loss and stamina, but these dysfunctional aspects of the Garland history get subsumed to an inspirational story of a young girl striving for success to provide for her family and fulfill the unrealized dreams of her devoted father. The treatment certainly provides emotional thread, even interpretive truth, to Judy’s youth biography, even if the resulting book is too dense, and makes the play run long - almost two hours and forty five minutes.
What’s most ingenuous about CHASING RAINBOWS, though, is how it musicalizes young Judy’s life, a nifty conception devised by Tina Marie Casamento Libby who secured rights to a cavalcade of tunes, including those from the 1939 classic movie, plus lesser known ones which Judy and her contemporaries would perform on radio broadcasts. Deftly adapted by David Libby and orchestrated by Dan DeLange, the two dozen songs are dramatically integrated into Acito’s book. The songs fit action from beginning to end, from the opening number “Shooting High” set in an old vaudeville theater in Grand Rapids Michigan with baby Frances, setting the stage for show-biz aspirations for all the Gumms. Garland’ most famous pre-Oz ballad, “You Made Me Love You” plays as duet for Judy’s parents, a plaintive, heartfelt ode to their initial affection for each other, even in the face of Frank’s infidelities with men, and Ethel’s own extra-marital retribution. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows" beautifully arranged here, emerges as Frank’s lament for his elusive self-esteem.
When Frances and her two sisters with Mama Ethel land in Hollywood, CHASING RAINBOWS really takes off, particularly with “All Ma’s Children”, an ensemble number set in a tutoring class, which Frances attends with other soon-to-be child stars like Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple. Instructed by a hilarious Karen Mason as their tutor Ma Lawlor, “All Ma’s Children” is an exemplar of rollicking musical-comedy song and dance, athletically choreographed by Chris Bailey, that both captures the frolic of youthful performers, but also the giddy, playfulness of the actual Mickey and Judy MGM musicals.
The ensemble highlight of the second act is “Swing, Mister Mendlessohn” where Judy and Mickey join in song and dance with Mason, this time Mason playing Louis B. Mayer’s executive secretary. The most touching duet is the popular classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love“ which writer Acito wisely uses to dramatize musically the loving relationship between daughter Judy and father Frank. The most puzzling musical adaptation, unfortunately, visits the most beloved of Judy’s ballads “Dear Mr. Gable/ You Made Me Love You.” Judy delivers the Mr. Gable chorus, but the rest of the number gets outfitted with new lyrics for studio tyrant Mayer, egged on by his secretary, to reveal his recognition at last of what a powerhouse he has under contract in Judy, whom he disparaged. (He called Judy a little “hunchback.”)
The whole cast is solid especially Michael McCormick as Mayer, Kevin Early, a magnificent tenor, as Frank Gumm and the firecracker Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney. Then, of course, there is Judy played by Ruby Rakos, briefly seen in BILLY ELLIOT on Broadway a few years back. Rakos’ is an amazing performance, not only for her range and Garland-like inflection and cadence vocally but also for body movement – hints of the semi-awkward poise of the wrist, the shrugging droop of the shoulder, the skittish yet graceful skip in the step - for which in adult years Garland is remembered . Rakos holds the audience not just in listening to her but watching her, too.
Despite being too long and laden with too much subplot, director Tyne Rafaeli keeps CHASING RAINBOWS moving, and cinematically at that. Sets by Kristen Robinson and costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward evoke the contrasts in the drab toil of vaudeville life with the glitter and glamour of the Hollywood studio.
CHASING RAINBOWS concludes with Judy, at the cusp of movie super-fame, coming into her own as she prepares for playing Dorothy Gale of Kansas. At the curtain call when the cast finally sings Judy’s signature ballad “Over the Rainbow” the audience spontaneously joins in, demonstrating how CHASING RAINBOWS inspires as much as Garland's immortal anthem itself.
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