Paper Mill Playhouse Presents Young Judy Garland Chasing Rainbows: [on] The Road to Oz
By: Ellis Nassour
October 9, 2019: Judy Garland, maybe along with Streisand, might be the exception to the rule, but bio musicals of great stars/legends from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age often suffer from the fact that today’s audiences, save for those of a certain age, have no idea who these iconic stars are.
The audiences at Paper Mill, exemplified that on opening night of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz by their unbridled enthusiasm, wild applause, and sustained, loud standing ovation, proved to be the exception to that thought. If you build it, they will come and this show has been on its way to the Yellow Brick Road since 2015 where, following readings and workshops, it premiered at North Carolina’s Flat Rock Playhouse; and was presented a year later at Goodspeed. There’s no denying there’s a wish to have it cross the Hudson to Broadway. If it will fly, however, is anyone’s guess.
Chasing Rainbows’ focus isn’t on Garland the legendary star and entertainer, but her beginnings as vaudeville trouper Frances Ethel Gumm in an act with her parents and two sisters. Family life disintegrates as her mother and beloved father split. The segue to Act One’s finale of Gumm’s signing with M-G-M is slow. However, the pace picks up on the lot where she meets irrepressible Joe Yule. Both are renamed: She’s christened Judy Garland; he becomes Mickey Rooney. A life-long friendship is born. As his star rises, Garland’s self esteem is destroyed by staff ridiculing her as an ugly duckling with an unattractive body.
Studio chief Louis B. Mayer, in spite of Garland’s vocal talent, is convinced she’ll never win over moviegoers. He regulates her to singing on radio. Then came the troubled production of The Wizard of Oz, set to star juvenile wunderkind Shirley Temple. After being axed [for unexplained reasons], Garland auditions and, voila!, is on the, sadly, unsteady Yellow Brick Road to becoming one of the world’s greatest entertainment icons.
Chasing Rainbows has book by Marc Acito (2015’s Allegiance), an award-winning playwright and novelist, after a concept by actress, teacher, and director Tina Marie Casmento. The score is stuffed beyond the brim with tunes from the Tin Pan Alley Songbook. The adaptation and additional music is by David Libby, keyboardist and music director (2011’s short-lived Off Broadway Play It Cool). Directing and choreographing isDenis Jones (choreographer, Tootsie; Tony-nominated choreographer, 2016’s Holiday Inn).
Often the show borders on musical comedy fact, but Acito’s book gets a lot right. There’s a heavy dose of hilarious one-liners and enough namedropping to fill a Hollywood Who’s Who – with many making if-you-blink-you-won’t-see-them cameos. Among those are Temple, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Buddy Ebsen, Lana Turner, George Jessel, and, in quite a fun bit, Oscar-winner and veteran character actress Gale Sondergaard (The Spider Woman; The Letter; so many more) who was cast to play the The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, but turned it down because her character wasn’t going to be beautiful.
Executing Garland’s rise from unknown to not-quite legend with a powerful belt is 22-year-old singer/dancer and NJ native Ruby Rakos (a later Ballet Girl, Billy Elliot; 2010 national tour, young Cosette/Eponine, Les Miz), who’s been developing her character since the earliest workshop – some six years ago.
Helping make the show occasionally soar are some of Broadway’s best vocalists (who can also act): Tony nominee Max Von Essen (An American in Paris) as Garland’s father Frank Gumm, Olivier Award-winner Lesli Margherita (Matilda; 2015 Broadway revival Dames at Sea) as Garland’s stage mother from hell Ethel Gumm, belter/beloved Broadway veteran and multi-MAC Award winner Karen Mason (original cast, Mamma Mia!, so many more) portraying M-G-M school teacher and Mayer’s scene-stealing smart-cracking secretary, high-flying hoofer Michael Wartella (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Mickey Rooney, Colin Hanlon (ABC’s Modern Family; Paper Mill’s Benny & Joon) as Metro composer/producer Roger Edens, Stephen DeRosa (Into the Woods, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) as Mayer, and last but absolutely not least, 11-year-old Sophie Knapp (Young Cosette/Young Eponine, 2017 Les Miz tour; later cast, Once) who brings down the house channeling Merman as young Judy.
There are some lost opportunities, such as, instead of so much irrelevant choreography, Jones making better use of golden-voiced Hanlon for a sequence to show how Roger Edens was one of the main guiding forces behind Garland’s stardom.
The almost non-stop music has bright orchestrations by three-time Tony nominee Larry Blank and Libby. The 13-strong orchestra is directed by veteran Broadway keyboardist, and arranger Lawrence Yurman. Set design is by Tony nominee Alexander Dodge (Anastasia, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).
Even though there’s much too much of it, and some of it seemingly filler, Jones is a deft choreographer and gifts audiences with two knock-out production numbers: a school house jazz and jitterbug cut-up and a memorable Act Two tap marathon – both headlined by the irrepressible Wartella.
There are many gems in the 30 or so classic tunes, such as Harburg and Arlen’s “If I Had a Brain” and “Over the Rainbow,” Joe McCarthy and Harry Carroll’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” James Monaco and McCarthy’s “You Made Me Love You,” and James Hanley’s “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” but the musical would be so much stronger and more poignant with an original score. The show cries out for a show-stopping “I Want” number for Frances and a defiant “11 O’Clock “Roses’s Turn” for Judy; not to mention a soul-searching tune to better explain Mr. Gumm’s double life.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz runs through October 27 at the Paper Mill Playhouse [22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ]. Accessibility performances are October 20 and 26 at 1:30 P.M. A cast Q&A will follow the October 26 matinee. Season subscriptions for four more shows, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Unmasked and The Wanderer, based on the life and music of Dion, are on sale at the box office or by calling (973) 379-3717. Individual tickets are $34-$112 and available at the box office, online at www.PaperMill.org, or by calling (973) 376.4343. Groups of 10 or more may receive up to a 40% discount. Call (973) 315-1680. Students may order $23-$28 rush tickets by phone or in person day of the performance. For additional information, please visit www.papermill.org.
Bank of America is Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz‘s major sponsor. Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2019-2020 season is sponsored by Investors Bank.
Production Photographs by Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made and Jerry Dalia
Opening Night Photography by Magda Katz