Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz
The musical is framed with opening and final scenes, each of which depicts a point of view of the triumphant moment in 1938 when Garland began filming her classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.
The journey to Oz begins in 1928 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where vaudevillians Frank and Ethel Gumm operate a movie theater. They appear on the theater stage as do their two older dancing daughters, Mary Jane and Virginia. Their youngest daughter, six-year-old Frances (the future Judy Garland), is timid and shy. On this day, the family is moving to California. We quickly learn that Frank's sexual preference is for men. Knowledge of this has spread, placing Frank in danger of a being assaulted by hostile locals. Furthermore, Frank fears that if he doesn't get the family out of town immediately, his daughters will be ostracized by their schoolmates and, in the process, hurtfully learn of his proclivities.
Thus begin the interlocking stories of Frank's trying to balance his love and concern for his family (particularly, his sensitive Frances) with his strong sexual urge, and Frances' often buoyant and upbeat experiences as she blossoms into screen royalty. Which is not to say that short shrift is given to Frances' other problems. Most prominent is her ugly duckling, "awkward age" appearance about which she is tormented by her mother and most everyone else with the notable exception of Frank. It is also noted that during these teenage years, Garland had already become drug dependent.
Bookwriter Marc Acito provides believable, three-dimensional characters (specifically in the cases of Frank, Ethel and Frances). His script is entertainingly replete with portrayals of legendary Hollywood figures. One screen star depicted is distastefully imitated and caricatured in a cruelly satiric manner. This is totally out of keeping with everything else in the show. Hint: She was a Republican.
The musical score consists of popular songs mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, with either their original lyrics, new lyrics, or a combination of both, along with a not inconsiderable number of new songs with music by David Libby and lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento (who has provided all of the new lyrics). The more than thirty songs are sung either completely, in fragments, or as medleys. At times, this creates a bit of a hodge-podge as the ear strives with difficulty to follow a melodic line or to locate the point at which a melody begins or ends; or a new lyric registers in the brain as being incompatible with a familiar melody. Happily, the new lyrics are evocative, amusing, and a remarkably good fit with the book.
Ruby Rakos is a superlative Frances/Judy. She comes amazingly close to duplicating the look, sound, posture, youthful enthusiasm, vulnerability, and abundant charm of the 16-year-old Judy Garland. Rakos is so naturalistic that we never get even the slightest sense that she is performing an impersonation. Her rich, strong singing voice seems to float effortlessly into Garland territory. This is a performance to be treasured. (There is convoluted exposition anent Judy's vocal development which appears to derive from the questionable decision to have Rakos sing terrifically from the get-go.)
Max Von Essen skillfully navigates the complex, difficult role of Frank Gumm. His performance allows us to care about him and his relationship with Frances without glossing over the recklessness with which he places the safety and happiness of his family in danger. Von Essen thrillingly delivers the beautiful classic (adapted from Chopin) "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." Lesli Margherita solidly portrays the bruised and bruising Ethel Gumm. Margherita hits all her marks without ever overplaying her bitterness, and then relies on the book to allow her to demonstrate her basic goodness without sentimentalizing her portrayal.
Michael Wartella delightfully portrays Mickey Rooney and proves to be a super-talented, showstopping song and dance man. Karen Mason is delightful portraying both a movie kids' schoolteacher and Louis B. Mayer's secretary.
Director-choreographer Denis Jones has assembled an exceptionally strong cast and elicited energetic, finely developed performances. He has choreographed a series of lively Broadway jazz dances employing music from Garland's 1930s MGM musicals (i.e., "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" and "Swing, Mr Mendelssohn"), which cleverly utilize various props and exhilaratingly build to ever larger crescendos.
Chasing Rainbows is a lively, intelligently entertaining, 1930s jukebox musical. It is very well written, choreographed, directed and performed.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz runs through October 27, 2019, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m./ Friday and Saturday 8 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.
Judy Garland (Frances Gumm): Ruby Rakos