The story of Frances Gumm’s transformation into Judy Garland (Ruby Rakos), Chasing Rainbows uses close relationship with her father, Frank (Max Von Essen), as a through line. Mother Ethel (Lesli Margherita) was purportedly critical, but Frank doted on his youngest daughter. The two Broadway veterans are excellent, Van Essen especially sympathetic.
Flashing back from the troubled Wizard of Oz set, we meet the family at a Michigan theater Frank ran, in which his wife (on piano) and girls performed: Virginia (Molly K. Lyons as a child; Tessa Grady as a young woman); Mary Jane (Allsun O’Malley as a child; Samantha Joy Pearlman as a young woman); and, Baby (Frances) Gumm (terrific Sophie Knapp). Bear with me, this musical has a humongous cast.
Frank Gumm was a closet homosexual. Caught fraternizing on the job, he was summarily dismissed. The family packed up and moved, mom and the girls to Hollywood with an eye to getting Frances into film, Frank to a small California town where he was able to secure a job at another theater – until once again found out. We hear “Goin’ Hollywood” and a soon to be repeated snippet of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”
In fact, almost the entire piece utilizes familiar musical material with fabricated intros. Again and again we hear songs not written for the moment. “Beautiful Girls,” “You Made Me Love You,” “When You’re Smiling”… Only “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Dear Mr. Gable” and a few others are historically appropriate.
Including reprises, there are 33 songs in the overlong show. Though many more or less fit, none present new perspective or address specifics. I find myself feeling gypped. That which was written for the show is pedestrian.
Next we see Judy at Hollywood Professional Children’s School. Ethel tells teacher Ma Lawler (perfectly cast Karen Mason-think Eve Arden) Judy isn’t sleeping. She gives the schoolmistress a prescription bottle of uppers in case Frances’ attention flags. Later the studio, appalled at her chunky figure, adds barbiturates to the amphetamines creating the addict Garland became.
Here Frances meets soon-to-be best friend and MGM boyfriend (the Andy Hardy films) Mickey Rooney (splendid, multifaceted Michael Wartells- think Donald O’Connor.) A first rate tap number involves the entire class. Choreography is fresh and imaginative. Appearance by the much younger Shirley Temple (Violet Tinnirello, who has the attitude down) seems shoe- horned in. ‘No sign of Elizabeth Taylor or Lana Turner both of whom were schoolmates.
Frances acquires her new name. How depends on whose account you believe. The three adult Gumm Sisters sing splendidly together. Should Rainbow not pan out, Rakos, Grady, and Pearlman might think about a show on The Andrews Sisters.
Louis B. Mayer ( reliably good Stephen DeRosa who might’ve had a bit more fun with characterization) hears about Garland from his Machiavellian secretary, Kay Koverman (Karen Mason, comedic element shining) who champions her along with composer/arranger Roger Edens (Colin Hanlon.) Mayer signs the girl without confidence. She’s “in between” – cue song, not a bit like the “beautiful girls” – cue song- his studio represents.
The rest is Judy’s rocky path to Oz. Book writer Marc Acito shares the studio’s endless, laughable, preproduction mistakes.
Reality, of course, was more nightmare (opera?) than musical comedy, but hey, that’s entertainment. If songs were original, perhaps… Talent 10; Show 4. I can’t imagine what Rainbows would seem like to someone completely unfamiliar with musical origins. ‘Likely much better received, I’d guess.
Ruby Rakos (Judy Garland) has a helluva voice. She emotes clearly if not deeply and exudes brightness which will serve well in her stage career.
Director/Choreographer Denis Jones is expeditious with direction, but super with choreography. Scenic design (Alexander Dodge) shoots its wad on first rate theater rigging, leaving other evocations looking cheap. Costumes (Linda Cho) are seemly for everyone but young Judy, who often looks “costumed” in street clothes. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe is, as always, on target.
Also featuring Christina Maxwell as Deanna Durban. Gorgeous voice.
Opening Photo by Jerry Dalia: Michael Wartella(Mickey Rooney), Ruby Rakos (Judy Garland), Colin Hanlon (Roger Edens), and Karen Mason (Kay Koverman)
Photos- Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz
Book by Marc Acito
Music Adapted & Additional Music by David Libby
Conceived and Additional Lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
Orchestrations by Larry Blank & David Libby
Through October 27, 2019
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive- Milburn, New Jersey