There are occasional mentions of diet pills, appetite suppressants and laxatives.
But Judy Garland’s taking such medications aren’t the focus of CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ.
This musical at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse could just as easily be called JUDY: THE EARLY YEARS. Despite a few references of the agonies that would eventually haunt Garland, CHASING RAINBOWS wants to celebrate the legend, not to castigate her.
The girl born Frances Gumm had to buck the system to get what she wanted – which was what her mother and father wanted, too. Yet we see the eventual Judy Garland couldn’t have got by without a lot of help from her friends.
One you might know: Roger Edens (an excellent Colin Hanlon), a Hollywood music man, was an early Garland champion, the man behind the girl. Yet Marc Acito, the deft bookwriter, wants us to know about someone else who was behind the scenes.
So he gives credit where credit is overdue: Kay Koverman, secretary to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer– the second “M” in M-G-M – becomes the woman behind the girl who got her front and center.
When the two argue about Gumm’s unique qualities Mayer’s response is “This is Hollywood. Why would we want someone fresh and original?”
So Koverman must play him like a Stradivarius – and does.
Considering the number of songs associated with Garland – including that one which you hear five minutes and 48 seconds into THE WIZARD OF OZ – you’d probably anticipate CHASING RAINBOWS would have to be a jukebox musical. Yes, it is, in that it offers plenty of melodies from yesteryear – and no, it isn’t, for so many of those old tunes sport new lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento.
She conceived the show, and was wise not to assume that every lyric to an existing pop song would suffice. All too often, the authors of jukebox musicals are satisfied if a song’s first line or two are apt; they don’t worry if the words that follow aren’t.
Casamento won’t settle for that. She’ll provide site-specific words to make every character get a fair share of eloquence and emotion. The Garland standards sprinkled throughout are often sung by other characters. It’s one of the many delightful ways that CHASING RAINBOWS surprises us.
The most brilliant use of recycling comes when Koverman (the always-wonderful Karen Mason) delivers a trio of songs from THE WIZARD OF OZ. With just a few changes in lyrics – precious few, in fact –Koverman wittily comments on Mayer’s Garland myopia.
When Casamento (and presumably director-choreographer Denis Jones) couldn’t find the right melody, David Libby was employed to write new melodies. They hit the spot as well.
Tolstoy in ANNA KARENINA insisted that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Show biz bios tend to be all alike, too: Performer starts out with nothing; Performer must struggle and endure setbacks; Performer finally gets that break and gets on the road to glory. Acito can’t avoid that template, so what he must do is rely on his immense talent to make it seem fresh.
And he does. Every now and then he can’t help reiterating a time-worn line (Judy to Edens, about her singing: “I can’t keep it inside me. I’ve got to let it out.”). For the most part, though, Acito’s done a masterful job of taking those paragraphs in all those studies of THE WIZARD OF OZ and dramatizing them to excellent effect. See why Mayer’s first choices for Dorothy Gale and The Wicked Witch of the West didn’t wind up in the film.
As for every family being unhappy in its own way, Acito brings in Dad’s much-substantiated attraction to other men. Our first hint of this is beautifully and subtly handled. From then on, there’s neither whitewash nor hogwash: Gumm is gay.
We see how homophobic people were back then. Dad isn’t remotely caught in flagrante delicto, and yet, he will ultimately pay a heavy price for what’s hardly an infraction.
His wife Ethel is quite aware of what her husband is. Does the surname Gumm mean that they’ll stick together, as Dad insists – or that they’ll be chewed up and spit out, as Mom fears?
However, with three daughters to support, Ethel is going nowhere. She’s hoping her daughters will get somewhere.
So does third-born daughter Frances. “What do you wish for?” the little girl is asked. Her hilarious response is one you usually don’t hear from tots.
(What we also don’t hear much of is how the other two sisters feel about their rising star. Their ultimate fates are left unsaid, too. The show is on the long side, so perhaps Acito felt that he just didn’t have room for those details.)
There’s a nice staging trick in the way we first see Little Frances Gumm. She’s so dynamically played by child actress Sophie Knapp that you hate to lose her when the story must progress.
At least we soon get another stunning little kid: Violet Tinnirello as Shirley Temple makes GYPSY’S Baby June look like Baby Louise.
Pity the director of the next Broadway revival of ANNIE when both Knapp and Tinnirello show up to audition. Making the decision on who stars as the titular orphan won’t be easy.
The show’s main event, however, is Ruby Rakos as the teenaged Gumm/Garland. By the time Ethel Gumm is insisting that the lighting man correctly use his spotlight on her daughter, you know that Rakos deserves millions of kilowatts. This actress is so magnificent and capable of so much that you might believe that if she were asked to fly over the rainbow, she could do it.
What Rakos also has is what Tony-winner Jessie Mueller displayed in BEAUTIFUL: a smile and demeanor that makes us want her to succeed. Not just as Garland, mind you, but as Rakos, too.
She might not finish first in a Judy Garland look-alike contest. She’s also too old for a girl who’s at most sweet 16. After a while, you may well not care, because you wouldn’t want to see anyone else in the part.
For Rakos has Garland’s early spirit, optimism and girl-next-door joy. The movies wouldn’t discover Cinemascope for decades, but Rakos has a smile that’s so wide that it compensates.
What really makes Rakos’ performance extraordinary is that she creates a Garland who lets us see that she isn’t merely showing off when she sings gloriously; she’s just doing what comes naturally.
And, naturally, everyone responds.
At the opening performance last week, Rakos didn’t get entrance applause, of course. Why would she? Nobody knows her.
Some performers must wait years before they get that type of validation and admiration from an audience. Rakos only had to wait an hour-and-a-half, for the moment she appeared in Act Two, first-nighters were applauding. With a performance like this in the making, who could possibly wait to go wild for her at the curtain call?
They did then, too, of course. It’s such a strong performance that you may not just root for her to win a Tony; you’ll expect her to be on her way to a Kennedy Center Honor.
Stephen DeRosa is wonderfully megalomaniacal as Mayer, especially when delivering in all seriousness “Get me a script – and someone to rewrite it.”
Karen Mason doubles in hilarious fashion as a teacher at the Hollywood Professional Children’s School. Mason shows the woman’s Tinseltown values that wouldn’t occur to teachers in the other 48 states (or the rest of California, for that matter).
As the Gumm parents, both Max von Essen and Lesli Margherita are so good you wouldn’t have minded if the show were all about them. Von Essen gets as big a hand with his big number as Rakos does with each of hers.
And what would a Judy Garland show be without a Mickey Rooney? Michael Wartella doesn’t resemble him any more or less than Rakos does Garland, but his dancing is so fast and spectacular that you’ll be concentrating on his feet and not his face.
Jones is one of the few director-choreographers today who knows how to mine gold out of a musical that purposely resembles a Golden Age musical. He also knows Hollywood musicals, too, for his choreography is more in the vein of what we see in song-and-dance films. That’s as it should be, considering the setting.
You know how it’s going to turn out; Garland WILL be Dorothy Gale. But Acito, doing as Peter Stone did with 1776, piles on the difficult obstacles so that you have no idea how it can possibly happen.
He also manages to avoid that bugaboo of all musical theater: second-act trouble. Don’t be surprised if Act Two interests you even more than Act One. This show that centers on “Over the Rainbow” may well have you over the moon. Don’t take the time to click your heels even once, let alone three times; click on the Paper Mill website to get tickets.