Chasing Rainbows: or, how Frances Gumm became Judy Garland
To open its ninth decade as one of New Jersey’s preeminent theatres, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz. I’ll cut to the chase right now and say that Chasing Rainbows is one of those musicals where the whole is greater than the sum of its near-perfect parts.
As the story of the early, pre-fame days of the girl who became Judy Garland, one might expect it to be a rehash of old familiar anecdotes mixed in with period songs. However, Marc Acito’s book is a touching picture of a young girl’s coming of age in 1930s Hollywood. The musical numbers, many of which come from the MGM music catalog, are adapted and expanded by David Libby and use revised/additional lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento. They are distributed among the play’s characters in ways that make those numbers new, fresh, and at times quite funny. The result is quality family entertainment that one would be foolish to forego seeing based on preconceived notions.
The story begins by introducing the Gumm Family, vaudeville performers based in Minnesota. They move to California, where father Frank (Max von Essen) operates a run-down movie house while mother Ethel (Lesli Margherita) moves closer to Hollywood to guide the careers of her three daughters. Youngest daughter Frances enrolls in a school for young actors and meets Joe Yule (Michael Wartella), soon to become Mickey Rooney, who takes her to a Hollywood party. Frances, now renamed Judy Garland, is discovered by Kay Koverman (Karen Mason), secretary to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Stephen DeRosa) and soon enters the studio system. Under the tutelage of MGM pianist/composer Roger Edens (Colin Hanlin), Judy learns how to sell a song. Edens and Koverman champion Judy, who is faced with overcoming personal tragedy, mishandling by directors, costumers, and makeup artists, and a studio-imposed regimen of sleeping pills, pep pills, and drastic diets.
Director/choreographer Denis Jones leads the cast in a well-paced production, with the weight of more serious scenes nicely balanced with comedic musical numbers. Some standout production numbers are “All Ma’s Children,” a reworking of Marx Brothers song “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” performed by the acting school students; “Swing, Mister Mendelssohn,” pairing Judy with Mickey and Deanna Durbin with the chorus joining in; and “Everybody Sing,” with Judy leading her family and the chorus. This brings the first act to a rousing close. Frank’s duets with Frances, “Always/Remember” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” are touching and tender, as is his duet with Ethel, “You Made Me Love You.” Comedy is found in Kay Koverman’s medley of the “If I Only Had…” songs from Wizard of Oz with lyrics adapted to fit her boss, Mayer, and from the hyperactive choreographic hi-jinks of Mickey Rooney.
The emotional center of the show is the relationship between Judy and her beloved, emotionally-supportive father Frank. Ruby Rakos and Broadway veteran Max von Essen are blessed with both powerful singing voices and strong acting chops. Von Essen and Lesli Margherita’s Ethel poignantly portray the relationship between two people who are wrong together—despite their love for each other. As Judy’s older sisters, Samantha Joy Pearlman and Tessa Grady support their phenomenally talented baby sister. Karen Mason shines as both Kay Koverman and Ma Lawlor, the head of the young actors’ school. Michael Wartella makes the most of his scenes, quickly sketching the conversion from Joe Yule to Mickey Rooney, while Joe Cassidy manages to evoke sympathy as Bill Gillmore, whom Ethel turns to for support as her marriage disintegrates.
Alexander Dodge’s stage designs capture both the glamour of 1930s Hollywood and the shabbiness of run-down vaudeville theatres and the Gumm’s living quarters, among a host of other locations. In this he is assisted by Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, incorporating sliding panels edged with colored lights to set mood and place. Linda Cho’s costumes are a delight for the eye, including the awkward clothing the studio, and Ethel Gumm, try to get 15-year-old “in-betweener” Judy to wear.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz succeeds in putting a fresh look on material that many people know—or think they know—about the legendary Judy Garland’s early years. It combines elements of coming of age stories and romantic dramas to create a musical fairy tale that is a cautionary story about the price of fame. It is filled with outstanding performances, lively dances, and familiar songs revitalized by revised lyrics and perfect settings within the story. It is a joy to watch and a joy to remember afterward. While one might have quibbles with plot resolutions in Chasing Rainbows, it comes close to being a perfect show and a perfect night out at the theatre. I urge you to get tickets quickly and make the trip to Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse to see Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz.