BWW Review: CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ at Goodspeed Opera House

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It's probably hard to find anyone around today who is not familiar with Judy Garland. Older generations may have grown up with her in Easter Parade or Meet Me in St. Louis. Others might remember her fondly as a powerhouse entertainer and singer who hosted her own television variety show. But at the very least, even the youngest among us know Judy as the unmistakable and indefatigable Dorothy Gale in the timeless MGM classic movie The Wizard of Oz. But a lot happened on "the Road to Oz", those formative years that put "Baby" Frances Gumm on the path to becoming Judy Garland and a super-star. And that journey is what brilliantly comes to life on the Goodspeed Opera House stage in the latest Goodspeed Musicals production CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ.

This brand new musical deftly shows how this "awkward girl with a golden voice" navigates through a childhood wrought with uncertainty and complexity to transform into the performer we all know and love. This transformation is colored by the music that is unmistakably hers and the friends and family who would help her realize her dream of one day playing The Farm girl with the Ruby Slippers.

Much of what is produced on the Goodspeed stage consists of classic, or lesser known musicals, and, as I have written in past reviews, they do an outstanding job with these types of shows. But preserving classic musicals is not their only goal - they also aim to develop new theatre works as a core part of their mission. And, In CHASING RAINBOWS, Goodspeed Musicals demonstrates how skilled they are at bringing new shows like this to life.

CHASING RAINBOWS, as conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby, is a non-stop cavalcade of recognizable songs punctuating a strong, though at times, heartbreaking story. Audiences get to meet "Baby" Frances Gumm as she and her sisters perform in vaudeville reviews from small town to small town, guided by her mother who embodies the classic "stage mother" persona and a father who adores her. We get to see her arrive in Hollywood, share a classroom with other kids who will one day be superstars just like her (Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, just to name a few), struggle to have her amazing talent truly heard, and even after signing an elusive MGM contract, face scrutiny from a studio that only knows how to market "beautiful girls."

With a strong book by Marc Acito, CHASING RAINBOWS moves deftly from one vignette of Frances/Judy's young life to another, conveying the complex emotions of the characters in concise and relatable ways. The scenes with Garland's parents show clearly their marital struggles, but a shared love of their children and desire to see them succeed, and whenever Frances and her best friend Joe are around, you immediately can see why one day as Judy and Mickey they would be the perfect team on the screen. Peppered throughout the book are glimpses of Mr. Acito's sharp wit and humor, which help lighten what could have been a more dismal reality.

What really brings this story to life on the Goodspeed stage is an extremely talented cast, led by Ruby Rakos who shines as Frances/Judy. Ms. Rakos captures the essence of Garland's powerhouse voice, her unique vocal style, and her girl-next-door appeal. Every time she opens her mouth to sing, something bold, beautiful, and brilliant comes out. Ms. Rakos shows the real Judy, not just the girl we know from the movies, but the girl who shoulders the burden of providing for her family, the girl with a crush on her best friend (as well as Clark Gable), and the girl who wants, more than anything to be a star.

Surrounding Frances/Judy are equally powerful performances by Kevin Earley (Frank Gumm) and Sally Wilfert (Ethel Gumm) as her loving, though flawed, parents. Mr. Earley, in particular boasts a powerful voice of his own, and shows it off during a series of numbers that illustrate well Mr. Gumm's love for his daughter, yet conflicted love life.

Another key standout was Karen Mason who has the rare opportunity to play not one, but two bold and brassy women in this production. First, as Ma Lawlor, she blows the roof off the schoolhouse in a lively number surrounded by her Hollywood children. Finally, as Kay Koverman, Ms. Mason gives us the strong, and influential woman who really pulls the strings at MGM (even if L.B. Mayer is the one with the title).

Tyne Rafaeli's direction brings out the best from her cast and keeps the pace of the show moving forward (which, with the volume of songs and scenes, could have been a challenge.) The choreography by Chris Bailey, while not extensive, shines in a number of key moments including the lively schoolhouse dance number and the critical moment when Judy learns she will be playing the role of her dreams. The scenic design by Kristen Robinson and costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward add beautiful layers to the story, bringing to life the time period and moving the story along from scene to scene. Finally, Michael O'Flaherty's music direction and Dan DeLange's orchestrations brilliantly show off the songs that would one day become Judy Garland classics.

In CHASING RAINBOWS, Goodspeed Musicals has brought to life on stage the story of a girl I thought I knew, but never really did. And having seen, heard, and experienced her triumphant story, I have a renewed appreciation and love for her amazing talent. So, whether you are a fan of Judy Garland, classic Hollywood, and The Wizard of Oz or just someone who loves experiencing a new, beautiful work of musical theatre, CHASING RAINBOWS is a must-see.

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CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through November 27. Performances are Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 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. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.) For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.

Photo credits:

Top photo: The cast of CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ, playing now through November 27 at the Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Mid photo: Ruby Rakos plays young Judy Garland in CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ, playing now through November 27 at the Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Bottom photo: Judy Garland (Ruby Rakos) and Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella) and Lana Turner (Berklea Going) on the set of the first Andy Hardy flick "Love Finds Andy" in CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ, playing now through November 27 at the Goodspeed. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.



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From This Author Joseph Harrison