Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz
Also see Fred's recent review of The Bakelite Masterpiece
An earlier version of Chasing Rainbows originated at Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina last year. The rehearsal period at the Goodspeed has enabled Tina Marie Casamento Libby, the woman who dreamt up the idea to portray the life and times of Frances Gumm before she became Judy Garland, to further explore and modify. David Libby, Casamento Libby's husband, provides musical adaptations while Marc Acito wrote the book for the production.
At the outset, the setting is the MGM soundstage where Garland is preparing to sing "Over the Rainbow." Almost immediately, the musical flips backward a decade to 1928 and the initial portion of the first act delves into Gumm family dynamics. A certain starlet is very young performer Ella Briggs as Baby Frances; Briggs absolutely steals the early spotlight with pitch perfect singing and her composure on stage.
Frank Gumm (Kevin Early) and his wife Ethel (Sally Wilbert) move, with their three daughters, from Minnesota to Antelope Valley, California. The girls do some vaudeville performing and Frank hopes that running a movie theater might at least lead to some fiscal security. Fast forward to the time when Frances is 13. The show's numbers, with musical direction by Michael O'Flaherty, include a Gumm family rendition of "Beautiful Girl" and, soon thereafter, Frank and Ethel combining on the classic "You Made Me Love You." Directing the entire presentation is Tyne Rafaeli while Chris Bailey provides some imaginative choreography.
The Gumm women relocate in Los Angeles while Frank toils with the movie theater, not a smashingly successful enterprise. The marriage between Frank and Ethel becomes a shaky one. Mickey Rooney (a lively rendition here by Michael Wartella) eventually comes on the scene as does George Jessel (Gary Milner), who was the catalyst as Frances Gumm took on the name of Judy Garland. Eventually, Judy finds herself in the office of L.B. Mayer (Michael McCormick).
The creative team for this production tries hard to weave a cogent storyline during the first act. Once it gets rolling, the continuity is fluent but this is not the case during the very first portion of Chasing Rainbows. After intermission, however, most of the action occurs at the MGM Studios or Mayer's office or elsewhere in Hollywood. The sequencing, now, is not a problem and some terrific music predominates. Frank and Judy combine on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." Judy, Mickey and Edna Mae (Claire Griffin) blend on a nifty "Swing, Mister Mendelssohn." Judy Garland idolizes Clark Gable (Danny Lindgren) and she, Mayer, Kay (Karen Mason), Roger (Gary Milner) and Mickey combine voices on "Dear Mister Gable/You Made Me Love You."
It is fitting that Ruby Rakos stands center stage to enrapture all with "Over the Rainbow," the show's finale. While this actress has appeared in New York and has some impressive credits, it is still appropriate to call her a special find: she is a rising star. Rakos was still in her teens when Casamento Libby first knew, really, that the young woman would become her leading lady.
Rakos has an innocent look yet brings warm presence while on stage. Mayer (played with suitable exaggeration by McCormick) does not, for the most part, take a liking to her. The scripting has him commenting, often, about her weight. Rakos, though, definitely does no appear to be overweight.
Many of the performers are splendid and these include Kevin Earley and Sally Wilfert as Gumm parents, Mason as Mayer's assistant of sorts, and McCormick as a thoroughly obnoxious L.B. Mayer.
At one time, early during the second act, Rakos as Judy says: "When I start to sing, I feel like there's a thunderstorm inside of me and I can't stop it." Yes, at times, this is true in in this productionduring certain moments. At other times, she is, when necessary, quiet or insecure. Kristen Robinson's minimalist scenic design behind Rakos opens up the stage. Cast members wear most appropriate costumes designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward. All to the good: the trappings help unveil a thoughtful musical that is revelatory, pleasurableand a becoming showcase for Ruby Rakos.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz continues at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut through November 27th, 2016. For tickets, call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.