New Musical at Goodspeed is Over the Rainbow
By Amy J. Barry
The last production of the Goodspeed season, an all-new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, takes the audience on the journey leading up to Judy Garland’s starring role in the Wizard of Oz, ending at the tender age of 17 as she dons her ruby red slippers and becomes Dorothy -- the iconic role with which Garland has become synonymous.
Although there are a number of books chronicling Garland’s early years (she was born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922), this is a engrossing story that hasn’t been told on stage before now.
Conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby with book by Marc Acito, the show stays mostly true to real events and combined with a wonderful selection of the songs Garland made famous (adapted by David Libby) it’s a show with a lot of potential.
The big challenge in producing this musical about “the little girl with the grownup voice” is finding an actress/singer worthy of playing the teenage Frances Gumm (Judy Garland). And Ruby Rakos fits the bill, both in looks and delivering on the mega star’s powerhouse contralto vocals. And the adorable Ella Briggs, playing Frances as a young child, has an equally astonishing set of lungs. Briggs also performed in Goodspeed’s 2015 season-closing production, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The musical opens in 1928, Grand Rapids, Minnesota where the Gumm family, Frank Ethel, and their three daughters, Frances, Virginia and Mary Jane are getting a police escort out of town. We don’t know why, but the mystery slowly unfolds.
Dubbing them The Gumm Sisters, with Frances getting top billing, the ambitious Ethel (Sally Wilfert) sets out with her daughters for Hollywood leaving Frank behind to run his failing movie theater while they attempt to make enough money to pay the bills.
The sisters perform in vaudeville until Frances gets signed onto Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but the ambitious self-made L.B. Mayer -- played with appropriate bluster and brashness by Michael McCormick, refuses to put Frances, who he renames Judy Garland, in the movies because she’s not the typical beautiful thin blonde. Sadly, a problem that keeps rearing its ugly head today.
The family mystery comes to light -- Frank, played by Kevin Earley, is gay and is having trouble staying “in the closet” a requisite for not getting beat up or evicted in 1930s America. Earley not only has stellar vocals, but sensitively portrays the conflicted husband and father who adores his family but can’t forever deny who he is. There are very tender, moving moments between Ethel and Frank expressed in “You Made Me Love You” and the affectionate bond between Frank and Frances/Judy is exemplified in the sweet “Always/Remember” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
Rakos does a fine job getting into Garland’s complex character -- how she struggles with rejection, financial pressure to provide for her family at such a young age, and the way she uses humor as a shield. There are even subtle hints of the star’s future drug addiction and ultimate untimely death from a barbiturate overdose, as we see her younger self already being prescribed diet pills and anxiety medications by adults attempting to reinvent her to fit their needs.
Rakos cinches such classics as “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” the jazzy “Everybody Sing,” and, of course, the exquisite final number, “Over the Rainbow.”
Other mention-worthy performances include Karen Mason’s warm-hearted performance as Mayer’s assistant Kay Koverman, who fought for Garland until she finally convinced her boss to put her in the movie that made her career, and Michael Wartella as the quirky down home Joe Yule who became known as Mickey Rooney, who Judy Garland went on to star with in nine movies.
The set by Kristen Robinson is sparser than one expects of a Goodspeed production, but there are so many short and quick numbers in the production, there’s no time for elaborate scene changes. Under Tyne Rafaeli’s keen direction, the actors’ swift movements and the lighting by Ken Billington both play an integral role in creating seamless shifts in both time and place.
The most compelling scenes are the deeply personal ones between the family members and the production could benefit from more focus on those interactions and a little less on the parade of extraneous figures with cameos, i.e. Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Buddy Epsen.
Also, the miking needs to come down a few decibels—the singers already project quite loudly on their own and it distracts from the nuance in their vocals.
Both heartbreaking and filled with high-energy fun, Chasing Rainbows may well be on the road to Broadway.
Performances of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz continue through Nov. 27 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. For times and tickets, call the box office at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com