The Rocky Road to Oz
By Geary Danihy
One can become a bit conflicted watching Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a new musical that recently opened at Goodspeed Musicals. This amalgam of songs from the 30’s, many made famous by Judy Garland, interspersed with original music by David Libby and Tina Marie Casamento Libby (who also “conceived” the show), with a book by Marc Acito, is often tremendously engaging and, at other times, just a bit of a snore.
There are echoes here of other “stagestruck” musicals and films, chief among them “Gypsy, with just a touch of “Little Voice,” for Chasing Rainbows tells the story of Francis Gumm, a little girl with a big voice who would become Judy Garland, a story that picks up when she is little more than a toddler (the “Baby” in the family), then fast-forwards to her at 13 years old and ends with her landing the lead role in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. There’s a stage mother (though not exactly the Mama Rose dragon), and a doting father who fills young Francis’s days with songs and dreams of glory. And then there’s Francis herself, a conflicted teenager who has some self-confidence issues (many of them dealing with her physical appearance -- Louis B. Mayer will refer to her as “the fat one”), yet feels she needs to carry the needs of her entire family on her shoulders.
Thus, we have the evolving story of the Gumm family, and then we have “Judy” evolving. The family story line is, though based on fact, the stuff of soap operas, with a wandering wife and a husband who is a closeted homosexual, and the period songs that Libby has selected to accompany this dramatization aren’t, with some exceptions, exactly toe-tappers. Thankfully, such is not the case with the “Judy” evolution, for here the audience is treated to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a riotous rendition of “All Ma’s Children,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, “Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn,” “You Made Me Love You” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”
The “Gumm” story provides the frame -- and justification -- for the “Judy” story and, of course, it’s Judy the audience has come to see, and the audience won’t be disappointed, for Ruby Rakos, who plays the more mature Judy (starting at 13 years old) does a marvelous job in capturing the “star quality” the propelled Garland to show business fame. Rakos bears a more than passing resemblance to Garland, and her voice, well, it’s “big,” capable of knocking out the hottest swing number, but also subtle enough to capture the essence of the more intimate ballads. Yet Garland was beset throughout her career (which was altogether too brief -- she died at age 47) by a haunting insecurity, and this Rakos is also able to portray with an understanding tenderness that, for those who watched Garland go through her many transitions (and battle with, among other things, weight -- do you remember her in Judgment at Nuremberg?) certainly evokes some bittersweet memories.
As is to be expected from Goodspeed, the supporting cast is excellent, chief among them Michael Wartella, who transforms the wise-cracking Joe Yule into the irrepressible Mickey Rooney, and in the process dances up a storm. Then there’s Sally Wilfert as Judy’s mother, Ethel Gumm, and Kevin Earley as her conflicted father Frank. Yes, they both play second fiddle to Rakos’s Judy (as was true in real life), and are deeply involved in the soap opera goings-on, but they both manage to create believable characters, with Earley most effective as he attempts to both shield and yet prepare his youngest daughter for stardom, and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is haunting on multiple levels.
Kudos also to Michael McCormick as the studio boss L. B. Mayer (just the right amount of bullying bluster) and the lithe Karen Mason as Mayer’s secretary, Kay Koverman and the acting teacher, Ma Lawlor. She’s an actor who proves that you can take supporting roles and turn them into audience-pleasing star turns. Also worthy of mention are Andrea Laxton and Lucy Horton, who play Judy’s older sisters, and, along with Wilfert and Earley, end the first act with an engaging “Everybody Sing.” Finally, there’s little Ella Briggs, who plays the very young Frances. She’s a pro when it comes to stealing scenes (and belting out songs), which reinforces W. C. Fields’ dictum: "Never work with children or animals."
Though Chasing Rainbows’ book is a bit scatter-shot, there’s no denying that when “Judy” is on stage the audience is riveted. One might have asked for a bit more spectacle and “screen magic” in the closing number (video projections now being commonplace in productions -- look what Hartford Stage did last year with Anastasia), there’s no denying that the magic that was Judy Garland still captivates, and it’s to Rakos’ credit that the magic lives on.
Chasing Rainbows runs through Nov. 27. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.