Dodging the Rain in Goodspeed Musical’s “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz”

By Brooks Appelbaum

Goodspeed Musicals’ “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” a new musical playing through November 27, is a feel-good story about a feel-bad life. The show chronicles Judy Garland’s life from age five, when she and her two sisters sang in vaudeville as the “Gumm Sisters,” to age sixteen, when she won the role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” In its best moments, we learn something of Garland’s family troubles, and the show alludes to Judy’s early frustrations as a young adolescent in Hollywood. However, this mostly comic song-and-dance evening resembles, a bit too closely, an overly long Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland romp.

This is disappointing because a freshly dramatic story lies just below the surface. Tina Marie Casamento Libby, who conceived the show, has chosen a clever and potentially poignant lens through which to view Garland. The most moving and original sections are those that focus, with some dramatically effective mystery, on the parents’ troubles; the touching love between young “Baby” Gumm and her father, Frank; and most powerfully, Frank’s tragic story, told through a few short scenes and the title song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”

Once young Judy gets to Hollywood, the show glosses over the well-documented pain of her experiences there. When she is categorized as plump and unattractive, this Judy tosses it off with a wisecrack. Too, the script barely mentions the pills and potions she was fed to lose weight and the uppers and downers that kept her working a grueling schedule.

However, the production boasts the terrific performances. As Judy, Ruby Rakos has a marvelous voice: she can belt with the best of them, and she can also infuse a ballad with sweetness, longing, and heartbreak. Rakos also manages that nearly impossible task of beautifully evoking young Garland without impersonating her.

Kevin Earley, as Garland’s father, Frank, gives a simultaneously tender and towering performance as a desperate man, unable to provide stability for his family and hiding a painful secret. The strongest song in the show, and the most powerful scene, is Earley’s delivery of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”

Sally Wilfert, as Ethel Gumm, embodies the wounded wife and the stage mother who really cares about her children’s success. Ella Briggs (“Baby” Frances Gumm”) not only sings with the power and nuance that young Judy had, but she is also a marvelous actor whose scenes with her father, in particular, are only cute when they are meant to be; more often, they are honest and affecting.

Other standouts are Gary Milner (George Jessel and Roger Edens); Michael Wartella (Mickey Rooney); and Karen Mason (Kay Koverman, L.B. Mayer’s powerful secretary). Milner has a humorous number as Jessel, in which he rechristens Ethel Gumm as Judy Garland (“Judy”). As composer, pianist, and mentor Roger Edens, Milner is a kind, encouraging presence.

Wartella’s Rooney is a lightning rod: a furiously fun and charismatic performer (both actor and character), especially when we first meet Rooney in the Hollywood classroom, where the kids mix it up on “All God’s Children.”

Kay Koverman, historically, was the brains behind the throne: she convinced Mayer to sign Nelson Eddy, despite the fact that the singer looked more pretty than heroic, and she also convinced him to take on Clark Gable, despite his big ears. The results of her influence obviously changed the history of film. Here, she is presented as Garland’s champion, and her number, “If/Only” is one of the best of the original pieces in the show.

Musical Adaptor David Libby has scored “Chasing Rainbows” mainly with music drawn from classic American songs of the time, and while the book (Marc Acito) needs re-shaping, the many songs never wear out their welcome.

Michael O’Flaherty’s Musical Direction is impeccable, and Chris Bailey’s choreography is a joy. Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson, Lighting Designer Ken Billington, and Costumer Designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward beautifully evoke not only the period, but also the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, in numbers as different as the escapist “Hollywood Party,” and the painfully realistic “Chasing Rainbows.”

¬†Even though “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” sweetens history too much, many will enjoy stepping into Technicolor and marveling at the view.

“Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” runs through November 27. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org

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