I was skeptical of “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” which is currently receiving its New Jersey premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. I’m always skeptical of jukebox musicals and that’s, essentially, what “Chasing Rainbows” is. It tells the story of Judy Garland’s rise (up to the point when she starred in “The Wizard of Oz” at the age of 16) with classic tunes — including “You Made Me Love You,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Got a New Pair of Shoes” — as well as original music.
The problem with jukebox musicals is that’s it’s not always possible, in representing a classic performer’s life (or some part of it), to find a story that works well on the stage. But the creative team behind “Chasing Rainbows” (Marc Acito, book; David Libby, music adaptations and additional music; Tina Marie Casamento, conception and additional lyrics) have come up with one. And with strong acting performances — particularly by Ruby Rakos, who is stunningly good as Garland — and direction and choreography by Denis Jones that conjures the bustling energy and high spirits of golden-age Hollywood musicals, “Chasing Rainbows” won me over. I highly recommend it.
The current movie “Judy” (starring Renée Zellweger) focuses on the tragedies of Garland’s later years.”Chasing Rainbows” is mostly about the against-all-odds triumphs of her youth, though it’s honest enough to not come off as overly sentimental, and works in some dark, satirical jokes (like a slick radio announcer saying “more doctors recommend Camels than any other cigarette”).
As portrayed in “Chasing Rainbows,” Garland (née Frances Gumm) comes from a modest lower-middle-class family and forms a vocal trio with her sisters Virginia (Tessa Grady) and Mary Jane (Samantha Joy Pearlman). But it’s Frances who has the golden voice and who dreams of a Hollywood career.
There is trouble in Frances’ home life. Her father Frank (Max von Essen) and mother Ethel (Lesli Margherita) are both supportive of her singing and acting, though Ethel tends to be harder-edged, while Frank, whom Frances clearly idolizes, is warm and nurturing. (Frank likes to think that their last name signifies that they stick together; Ethel thinks it means “we get chewed up and spit out.”)
Frank is also gay, which leads to him and Ethel separating, with the three girls continuing to live with Ethel. Frank eventually loses his job as a movie projectionist, though, when his boss finds out he’s gay, and comes back to live with Ethel, even though she is now dating a Hollywood agent, Bill Gilmore (Joe Cassidy).
Frances meets a talented and irrepressibly energetic young actor, Joe Yule (Michael Wartella, cartoonishly hamming it up) in school; one of the musical’s big, show-stopping production numbers has them and the other students, including Shirley Temple (Violet Tinnirello), tap dancing. Frances and Joe become close, platonic friends.
Joe “makes it” in Hollywood first — under the name Mickey Rooney — and clears the way for Frances to join him, as Judy Garland. We get glimpses of lots of other Hollywood royalty of the era, too, including Clark Gable (Sean Thompson), George Jessel (Kevin B. McGlynn), Lana Turner (Clara Cox) and Deanna Durbin (Christina Maxwell).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Louis B. Mayer (Stephen DeRosa) is impressed enough by Garland’s voice to sign her to a contract, but her “ugly duckling” looks make him reluctant to treat her like a potential star. Hinting at the problems she will have later in life, she is encouraged to take diet pills (that all the other Hollywood starlets were supposedly taking) in order to stay thin.
It all works out, of course. Mayer’s secretary Kay Koverman (Karen Mason), who knows how to slyly manipulate him, and his musical supervisor Roger Edens (Colin Hanlon) recognize Garland’s talent, and scheme to get her into “The Wizard of Oz,” a big project for MGM. Koverman argues that Garland can represent a new kind of movie star — the “girl next door,” rather than some impossibly glamorous ideal.
“The Wizard of Oz” does not come together easily. A segment devoted to the early days of its production is so chaotic it has a nightmarish quality. But that all is forgotten when Judy finally steps forward, at the end of the musical, and sings (you guessed it!) “Over the Rainbow.”
I’d normally withhold that, for fear of spoiling the surprise, but it should be clear to everyone from the first scene that that is how the story is going to end.
You may have noticed that many of the plot developments I mentioned didn’t actually take place that way in real life. But “Chasing Rainbows” isn’t particularly concerned with historical accuracy. As anyone who was part of the Hollywood community portrayed in this musical would argue, there’s no reason for reality to stand in the way of a good story.
“Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Oct. 27; visit papermill.org.
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