Theater Review – Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz
Goodspeed Opera House
I gush, I gloat, I Gumm, I Garland- and lastly I Kvell!! In fact, I find myself in a deep state of kvell* – yes I am kvelling! At this very moment the kvell has brought forth a tear to my eyes. Now what could cause this Zyrtec moment you ask? No it’s not my seasonal allergies- these happy “4G” circumstances have been brought forth by my most current jaunt down the “yellow brick road” to the glorious Goodspeed Opera House in Haddam, CT and their current production of “Chasing Rainbows- The Road to Oz”- how teen wonderkin Frances Gumm was transformed into “the” Judy Garland.
* beaming with pride – To feel delighted and proud to the point of tears
Once again I find myself in the myst of witnessing a true “Happening” – one of those rare moments when you inwardly acknowledge to yourself that you are experiencing something “extraordinary” – bearing witness to a “significant new entry” to the great roster of American musicals – “Chasing Rainbows- The Road To Oz”!! As with the “immortal” “Annie” and the current “Holiday Inn”- which both had their start at the Goodspeed, I swear to myself that this musical will be the next big thing on “Broadway”- the production conceived by Tina Maria Casamento Libby, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, book by Marc Acito, music by David Libby, choreography by Chris Bailey and with actors that are “first rate” and so so ready to “give their regards to” the “Great White Way of NYC” and then the world!
On this early Autumn evening, The Goodspeed- its packed house of patrons now all rooted in their seats, take witness on stage of a teen Judy Garland, (Ruby Rakos) being adorned in a faux blonde wig, outfitted in the iconic blue gingham dress while strands of ” Harburg and Arlen” are exhaled from the orchestra pit below – flashbacks now relive her life as Frances Gumm up to that point in time where she will eventually portray “Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. Through her eyes, we retrace the family’s move from Grand Rapids, Minn., to California, as part of the vaudeville sister trio “The Gumm Sisters”- accompanied by their mother Ethel who plays the piano. Onward to her “school” years where she meets fellow child actors Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Lana Turner and future co-star in numerous “Babe In Arms” films – Joe Yule aka Mickey Rooney and then her eventual signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under movie Czar Louis B. Mayer.
In fact the musical at times plays out like a grand game of OZ trivia- but I love it- how she was rebranded- “Judy” by a popular Hoagy Carmichael song and then “Garland” suggested by entertainer Georgie Jessel, that L.B Mayer made his start in the scrap business, Judy getting slapped by OZ Director Victor Fleming, why the song “Jitterbug” was cut, while “Somewhere Over The Rainbow, disliked by Mayer (it’s not for a little girl singing in a barnyard) eventually became an all-time classic.
Let me get down to the nitty gritty- “The” heart and soul of this production rests on the talented shoulders of 20 year old Ruby Rakos – she is Fab-U-Lous!!! There would be no production without the exacting, energetic and so impressive talents of Miss Rakos. Squint your eyes, glimpse that cute upturned nose and just listen to her hypnotic bigger than life “beep-bop voice” and she is uncannily transformed into a youthful Judy Garland. And Ruby- make sure when the production does go to Broadway that all the press media states “and presenting Ruby Rakos as Judy” – you deserve it!
Casting of “Chasing Rainbows” is “topnotch” – like a jigsaw puzzle they all seem to fit exactly into their respective roles- Kevin Earley who portrays Frank Gumm- little Judy’s dad- great voice and his portrayal is powerful yet sympathetic; Michael Wartella as Joe Yule aka Mickey Rooney – another double threat singer and dancer with that magical Rooney spring in his step-terriff! Karen Mason as Kay Koverman- loved her rendition of “If I only had A Brain; Michael McCormick’s media mogul “cry on cue” L.B. Mayer has that perfect bombastic swagger, and lastly let me single out Ella Briggs as “Baby Francis”- adorable- and so much talent- a standout with an astonishing voice larger than her age – please take note at the end of the performance she dons Judy’s fabled “tramp outfit” from 1948′s film Easter Parade- so did ya notice?
A few odds and ends- the production is long- producers might want to consider cutting some of the first scene in Grand Rapids; the auto scenes with the family – driving to California is a bit repetitive and reminds one of Lucy, Desi and the Mertz’s making the same jaunt. L.B Mayer, Georgie Jessel and even Clark Gable had very distinctive voice characteristics-none of these attributes are provided by the actors portraying these iconic figures. My favorite production numbers included “This Is a Happy Little Ditty”, “Swing, Mister Mendelssohn”, “Dear Mr. Gable” and of course the finale with Judy performing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. This is a highly enjoyable musical bio, an engaging true story with a multiple multitalented cast that will leave you with a case of the “Kvells”! Click your Ruby Slippers Three Times- Kvell and Enjoy!
“Chasing Rainbows: The Road To Oz” will run till November 27th, 2016. Curtain times are Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available through the Goodspeed Box Office (860.873.8668), open seven days a week, or on-line at http://www.goodspeed.org.
Howard Steven Frydman is General Manager and Executive Director of BATV – Channels 5, 95 & 96 and a member of the CCC. Please feel free to contact Mr. Frydman with your thoughts and ideas at Howardbatv@aol.com