Goodspeed's "Chasing Rainbows": Judy, Judy, Judy!

The Cast of "Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Judy Garland (nee Frances Ethel Gumm) put it best: “The history of my life is in my songs”. Thus we have the new bio-musical Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz now being presented by Goodspeed Musicals. Originally developed at Goodspeed's Johnny Mercer Writers' Colony, and first presented by Flat Rock Theater Company in North Carolina, the show covers her formative years from vaudeville to Hollywood, from 1927-1938 (age five to sixteen). She made her theatrical debut at the ripe old age of thirty months, as Baby Frances, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. This might be legitimately viewed, at least in a chronological sense, as the first in a trilogy (continued in The Wizard of Oz and Wicked), or maybe not, since this is really the back story and a prequel. Since its thirty-three numbers use songs made familiar by Judy herself, as well as some other numbers contemporary to her life span, it qualifies as that most derivative of musical theater forms, the “jukebox” musical (one that sorely lacks an original score). As such it shares the weakest aspect of such shows, namely that songs are inserted, often arbitrarily, without any integral connection to the arc of the Book by Mark Acito, who also co-wrote the recent Broadway musical Allegiance, (recorded by Fathom Events and coming this season to a movie theater near you).

Yet, as Judy was quoted above, many of the numbers tell the story of her life, so aren't quite as shoe-horned as with other such shows. The story was Conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby with Music Adapted by David Libby, and they've done their research well, such as the “Jitterbug” number recorded for The Wizard of Oz but scrapped, her father Frank (Kevin Earley) and his rumored personal issues, the allergic reaction to tin man makeup by Buddy Ebsen (Bryan Thomas Hunt) and the competition with Shirley Temple (Lea Mancarella) and Deanna Durbin (Claire Griffin). It's an unabashedly old-fashioned and sentimental show, yet it works, in large part due to an incredibly gifted cast. Even they can't rescue such lines as “rainbows don't last forever, but neither does the rain”, or the many (way too many) Gumm jokes (e.g.“Gumm, as in chewed up and spit out”). Then again there are more clever asides, such as several lines for George Jessel (Gary Milner) and L. B. Mayer (Michael McCormick): “This is Hollywood, why would we want 'different and original'?”.

The show is most reminiscent of the musical “Gypsy”, but with a less controlling mother in the person of Ethel Gumm (Sally Wilfert) supervising The Three Gumm sisters, Mary Jane (Griffin again), Virginia (Piper Birney) and Frances “Baby” Gumm, the youngest, (Ella Briggs, a real standout). The older versions of the Gumm Sisters are Mary Jane (Lucy Horton), Virginia (Andrea Laxton) and Frances (Ruby Rakos). Also featured are Karen Mason in two roles (Kay Koverman and Ma Lawlor, Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella), Lana Turner (Berklea Going) and Clark Gable (Danny Lindgren). Obviously with such a large cast, there's not much room for subtle character development. As Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Music Director Michael O'Flaherty rounding out his twenty-fifth Goodspeed season, and Orchestrations by Dan DeLange, as well as Choreography by Chris Bailey, Lighting Design by Ken Billington, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and Costume Design by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, the technical aspects are all superb. This is less a dance show than a singing one, and therein lies its success. With a series of numbers like I Can't Give You Anything but Love, You Made Me Love You, Broadway Rhythm, and, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, all one needs is a cast who can sing.

And what a singing cast this is. Every one of them, individually and in chorus, are perfection, from the stellar leads to the briefest cameo roles, threatening to blow the roof of the theater off with their pipes. It would be criminal to single out one belter among so many fabulous voices, but it would also be criminal not to mention the breakout performance of Ruby Rakos in the role of a lifetime as the immortal Garland. While she's prettier than the role is described, with Mayer crudely referring to her being fat, (sounding eerily contemporary, no?), echoing the expression plus le change, plus la meme chose, she's totally believable from Judy's rocky start to her more confidant self; even her vocal chops grow along the way to the end of the rainbow with its pot of gold. Once in a great while a performer leaves an incandescent memory, and Rakos creates an unforgettable “Ruby's Turn”. Someday, on display in the Smithsonian, there just might be another famous pair of Ruby slippers.

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