Chasing Rainbows,Book by Tony Acito; conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby; Musical adaptation by David Libby. Choreographed by Chris Bailey. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland; photo: Diane Sobolewski
"When I sing it's like there's a thunderstorm inside me."
Claire Griffin, Ella Briggs, Kevin Earley, Piper Birney; photo: Diane Sobolewski
What is needed to create a star, a nova actually? In Hollywood it is someone with vision who can see beyond the surface, get under the skin of the fat little girl of thirteen with no breasts and the wide face and thick hair who just happens to sing like a jazz-singing veteran of the Harlem clubs with a ringing tone like none other. In the new musical, "Chasing Rainbows" it is a group of people including Ethel and Frank Gumm, Roger Edens, Kay Thompson, Georgie Jessel and Joe Yule, Jr. (later known as Mickey Rooney). The girl is, of course, Baby Frances Gumm rechristened Judy Garland while on-stage with Jessel. Sounds a bit like a rerun of "Funny Girl," the so-very similar musical about Fanny Brice (who later acted with Garland in one of the girl-star's early films) and it is like its successful model to some degree. But it is different in many ways. For one thing it's much more honest and revealing.
Judy Garland's early life as one of the Vaudeville troupe, The Gumm Family, in which all five Gumms appeared: Mama at the piano on stage and Dad and the three girls singing and dancing their hearts out in the spotlight, was one of early discipline and training. It was also the start of what became an abusive up-bringing of a highly talented child who didn't meet anyone's idea of beauty let alone glamour. She only got the attention she deserved when it became clear to the men who controlled the film studios that this girl was the curious exception to the rules: Not a Garbo or a Crawford in terms of attractiveness; not an actress like Bette Davis; not a vocal icon like Deanna Durbin or Jeanette MacDonald; Garland was an enigmatic personality who came to life on screen like no one else had or would for many years to come. If the word STAR had been coined for just one person, it would most likely have been for her. Getting there, becoming that sensation, is the story of "Chasing Rainbows."
With a superb cast, some of whom have done the show in earlier workshops and productions, a fine director and an excellent choreographer, this show - which closes the 2016 season at Goodspeed Musicals - is an excellent topper for the company that delights in showing audiences what musicals are and how they should be done.
As in every Hollywood Bio-Pic there is some stretching of the truth for dramatic effect. In this show Garland only has one motion picture under her belt before her break-through performance as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" but in reality "Oz" was her seventh feature film. In the play the character of Kay Koverman is the campaigner for the girl's career at M-G-M while it was truly Arthur Fried, the producer, who fought for her. Even her two-reel short film, "Every Sunday" in which she was paired with a young Deanna Durbin is avoided and their classic duet restructured as a school-room prank and competition. AND her costume in that picture is what the musical has her wearing for her only audition with Louis B. Mayer. Ridiculous.
Still, there are some wonderful aspects to this show, some surprises as well. Ruby Rakos who plays Frances Gumm/Judy Garland is a remarkable look-alike with a powerful voice that impresses every time she sings. She doesn't imitate Garland but she has the chops to thrill with a voice that rings when she sings, that has the sustaining power of an operatically trained Ethel Merman. She gives a moving and generous performance, sharing the stage with her co-workers the way Garland does with the Munchkins in "Oz." Rakos' sincerity in the role gives it clarity and the power of truthfulness. She is moving and effective just standing still listening.
Opposite her, as Mickey Rooney, is Michael Wartella, a Pittsfield kid, who brings incredible physicality to the role, showing us exactly what it must have been like to be the street kid in Rooney's own M-G-M films. He sings, dances, does acrobatics, plays drums and emotes the way a child-star should. Knowing him or not you glow with pride everytime he takes the stage and leaves others out in a snow-drift. It is a most dynamic performance, one loaded with dynamite.
Among the finely crafted performances in this show are those of Kevin Earley as Frank Gumm, Judy's tormented father, Gary Milner - first as George Jessel and mostly as Roger Edens, and Claire Griffin as Edna Mae (later Deanna) Durbin. She brings an excellent lyric soprano voice into the show, a different sound from the other kids around her and although she does not play the physical Durbin at all, she does have the delicacy and purity that made her into a different sort of child-star. Earley is the most emotionally moving of the three, giving his character a much needed honesty that provides the only real heart-break of the play, a second-act exit that provides tragic tears for an audience already saturated with too much musical magic. As Edens who created special material tailored for the young Garland, Milner is marvelous. He plays an attractive, charismatic man who could not, himself, have the career that he may have wanted but who had the genius to see the potential in others. Milner carries it off without difficulty and he plays the inner jealousy tempered by admiration to perfection.
MICKEY AND JUDY: Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos; photo: Diane Sobolewski
Karen Mason and Michael McCormick; photo: Diane Sobolewski
There are three other superb performances among so many wonderful ones: Sally Wilfert as Ethel Gumm, Judy's mother, Michael McCormick as Louis B. Mayer head of M-G-M studios, and Karen Mason as his assistant Kay Koverman. Wilfert plays a woman whose sincerity is altered into the worst aspects of a stage-mother, one who cares more for her own place in the cosmos and who will use her daughter to achieve her own imperfect goals. When she grabs her daughter's new professional name for her own, humiliating her husband in the process, we see a glimpse of who she will ultimately become, a path the authors have not taken here for that would be an entirely different show. Wilfert plays all aspects of Ethel with strength and power.
McCormick give to L.B. Mayer a certain amusing aspect as he shows his overly manipulative side over and over. At the same time his crass treatment of the young girl who became one of Mayer's most important assets is offset when he rises to the defence of a defenceless child being abused by another employee. McCormick delivers nicely in this conflicted role and gives a certain unavoidable reality to the musical play.
Karen Mason plays his assistant, loosely based on Kay Thompson who worked with Roger Edens to form the character of Judy Garland along with her particular song interpretation style. Mason is a strong contender for best performance in a musical with this characterization. She is sharp, definitive, a real champion at delivering the stinging line. Mason makes Kay into a focal point character without whom the show would drift aimlessly at times.
The score for this show is principally constructed from the songs of Judy Garland's time, including many she sang in movies and in vaudeville before that. There are a few original pieces by David Libby and Tina Marie Casamento Libby and they work well within the context of the show. In writing "Funny Girl" the authors wanted to include the definitive Brice tune, "My Man," but were thwarted by Billie Burke Ziegfeld's refusal to grant permission and as a result the authors penned "His is the Only Music That Makes Me Dance," now a classic of its own. No such result comes out of this show and it dependence on wonderfully used existing material. Thankfully, we do get the definitive Garland song, "Over the Rainbow," and life and the show go on.
On the small stage at Goodspeed the sets by Kristen Robinson create very playable and understandable spaces always. Ken Billington's oddly restrained lighting enhances the images we watch and Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's wonderful and evocative costumes provide the look that gives reality to the whole picture. The choreography of Chris Bailey is exciting to watch - you almost want to cheer now and then when some fabulous work is delivered by this exuberant company. Tyne Rafaeli has held the whole show together with a perfect vision of character and time and place. This director never crowds the stage, although the company is large and is very much needed so much of the time. As other actors take center stage and play out their roles, the director incorporates their talents into a distorted photograph from times past. Particularly adept at these moments is Danny Lindgren as a totally wrong Clark Gable, Berklea Going as a very ill-conceived Lana Turner and especially the gorgeous young black woman playing Joan Crawford. Each one does a wonderful job playing someone they could never truly re-create and much of the credit for that goes to the director.
This is the third Judy Garland play I've seen in the past few years, and I've skipped one or two in the process. This is a superb look at the early years, the start-up of an industry known as Judy Garland. With the leads, the look and the love imbued in this story told at Goodspeed it is a show that is not to be missed. "Chasing Rainbows" lives up to its title in every way.
Chasing Rainbows plays at Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT through November 27. For information and tickets call the box office at 860-873-8668 or go on line to goodspeed.org.