Judy Garland and Dorothy: the making of a star -“Chasing Rainbows” at Goodspeed

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Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

By Karen Isaacs

 Chasing Rianbows the Road to Oz is a rare thing for Goodspeed – a new musical.

Recently the new musicals on the main stage have been adaptations of well-known films — It’s a Wonderful Life and last year Holiday Inn which is now on Broadway. It did not even have a workshop at their Terris Theater in Chester though some of its development was at the Johnny Mercer Writing Colony at Goodspeed.

Chasing Rainbows, running through Nov. 27, is a must for all Judy Garland and Wizard of Oz fans. It tells the story of Judy’s rise from her beginnings in Minnesota with her mother, father and two older sisters who all perform (the three sisters were known as The Gumm Sisters), to her early struggles in Hollywood and finally her casting as Dorothy.

It is poignant not just because Judy’s childhood was not ideal — though not unloving or abusive — but because we all know the later part of her life. So we cringe when her mother and others tell her she isn’t pretty, or when the studio offers pills to help her lose weight.  We know what is to come.

Chasing Rainbows

The three young Gumm Sisters with father Frank. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The show opens with the family performing in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1928 where the family owns a movie theater with vaudeville acts; soon the “young” Judy — who looks about 5– and her sisters morph into their older selves. They leave Minnesota for Hollywood under mysterious circumstances that later become clear. From the presence of the town folk and police as they leave, it seems as though they are being run out of town. But why?

They settle in eastern California where Judy’s father, Frank has purchased a rundown movie theater. We are now in the early ‘30s — the depression is raging and soon Mom feels stifled in the small town so she takes the girls and heads to Hollywood. The plan is for Judy to get a movie contract and help support the family.

Somehow Judy ends up in a studio school where she meets the teenage boy who will be renamed Mickey Rooney and others. Competition is rampant; Judy hasn’t succeeded at getting anywhere so Mom finds an engagement at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The engagement is a bust BUT they get booked at the Oriental Theater where headliner George Jessel “discovers” Judy — still at this point Frances Gumm – and gives her the last name of Garland.

Back in Hollywood, Judy gets to sing at a black tie party thanks to Mickey where she catches the attention of a composer/pianist and L.G. Mayer’s powerful secretary. It leads to a contract.

Chasing Rainbows

Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney and Ruby Rakos as Judy. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Act 2 finds Judy under contract but not being used except to sing on the radio. L. B. Mayer didn’t like her looks – not glamorous or conventionally beautiful – and her adult sounding voice. She was barely in her early teens; too old for the cure kids roles and not ready for romantic lead roles. She was the “girl next door,” but the thought was that movie audiences didn’t want the girl-next-door, they wanted unobtainable girls.

Her big break comes when she sings at a studio bash to celebrate Clark Gable’s birthday; Judy sings the special arrangement and lyrics for “You Made Me Love You”. Soon there is talk of using her in The Wizard of Oz. The rest is history, though the show concludes with Judy convincing Mayer that the blonde wig and glamourous clothes that were planned for Dorothy were all wrong. During this time, her father move in with the family – the movie theater was a bust and there was another incident due to the father’s attraction to men. He dies while Judy is performing on the radio.

Music for the show comes from the MGM catalogue and of course, includes iconic songs from The Wizard of Oz. But not all the songs are familiar; many are more obscure songs that were used in various movies by the studio. The range of composers and lyricists is a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood talent – Arthur Freed, Walter Donaldson, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hart – as well as lesser knowns. The music has been adapted and arranged by David Libby.

The show was conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby, a Garland and Hollywood musical aficionado who worked with book writer Marc Acito with help from John Fricke, who is billed as creative consultant/historian; he has authored a number of books and articles about Garland. As with any fictionalized work, some events have been changed and some characters changed.

Any show about Judy Garland, lives and dies with the actress playing the role. It is a

Chasing Rainbows

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

difficult task because she was an iconic, larger-than-life performer who is etched in almost everyone’s memory. Ruby Rakos has that nearly impossible job and in many ways she succeeds admirably. She captures a great deal of the qualities that made Garland’s voice unique without giving us an imitation of her. Rakos’ real problem is more about size. Garland was petit in height, barely 5 feet tall. Rakos is taller. So though in much of the show she is supposed to be preteen or early teens, she appears much older. When at one point, her mother mentions Judy is just 13, it was a surprise; she looked mid to late teens.

Rakos is surrounded by a talented cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Kevin Earley plays Garland’s father with a hint of the conflicted man who struggles to succeed and to be himself. It is he who first sings “I’m Always Chasing Rainbow” in the first act and he scores with his rendition. Later he and Rakos get “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” He has a clear light baritone voice.

Sally Wilfert plays Garland’s mother, Ethel. Ethel can remind you of Mama Rose with her determination and bluntness; she is determined but you also see her love for her husband, despite his troubles.

Michael Wartella is Mickey Rooney and is certainly captures Rooney’s brashness and talent – Wartella sings and dances very well; but again he is too tall for the role. Many members of the cast play multiple roles such as Gary Milner who plays both Jessel but the composer/pianist who takes Judy under his wing at MGM. I must also mention Karen Mason who is Mayer’s starchy secretary who convinces him to give a Judy a contract and then plots to get her roles. Michael McCormick brings humor role to Mayer who was, as many Hollywood studio heads were, for his non-sequitors.

As with any jukebox musical, and this is basically what Chasing Rainbows is, in the mode of Jersey Boys and Mama Mia!, sometimes the songs feel forced into the plot – either the lyrics or the emotion don’t quite fit the characters or plot. Many of the lesser known songs selected are not well known for a reason – they are not just that interesting or memorable.

As is usual with Goodspeed productions, all elements from the orchestra to the set design which has to suggest numerous locations, lighting, costumes and sound are top notch. Also excellent is the choreography by Chris Bailey and the direction by Tyne Rafaeli.

Chasing Rainbows is not yet a finished product and it is hard to guess what its future will be. From the program insert, changes have already been made during its run and Goodspeed and more will continue to be. It is a must show for all Garland fans; for others it may depend on your interest in obscure movie musical songs and the “becoming a star” format.

It is a Goodspeed through Nov. 27. For tickets visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

Chasing Rainbows

The cast of  Chasing Rainbows – The Road to Oz.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

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