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Chasing Rainbows: The Road of Oz
Well, when I start to sing, I fee. . .I feel like
. . .I've got so much inside me, I can't keep it in, I just hafta let it out. It's like I'm trying to reach the whole audience and hold them in my arms. And what comes back at me is this. . .tidal wave of. . .love
— Judy

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz<
Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos (Photo: Evan Zimmerman)
There is no question that Judy Garland — "the little girl with the big voice" — - grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved entertainers of all time. Her life, her now legendary concerts and her amazing career as star of MGM musicals for over two decades have been well and truthfully documented. While her phenomenal success was constantly challenged by the use of drugs, alcohol and wrong personal choices, her extraordinary talent never ceased to thrill her millions of fans.

How remarkable and also gratifying that Garland and her mystique is back in the spotlight on the screen and on the stage on the fiftieth anniversary of her death. This is first thanks to Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger's lauded performance as Garland in the currently-in-release bio-film Judy, and now also as portrayed on the stage by Ruby Rakos in the musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

Let's state from the top that the pert and perky Rakos nails it. It is doubtful that there is anyone anywhere who might be a better interpreter of the young Judy's persona and talent. Do I have to say that her performance as the teenaged Judy Garland nee Frances Gumm is flawless and her singing voice is thrilling?

There is more than a little irony with dramatizing the sadly last days of Garland's turbulent life in the film just as her life as a child at the start of her career is revisited in a stage musical that is literally bursting at the seams with exuberance, charm and full of hope. This may be a juke-box musical, as conceived by Marie Casamento but it is strengthened by a witty and insightful book by Marc Acito and directed (also choreography) with great flair by Denis Jones.

The big surprise is how cleverly the book reveals what made this gifted but also rather plain-looking girl tick; a girl who wanted stardom right from the start. But there is plenty of emphasis on how Garland's raw talent was discovered, as well as on the identifiable quirks of the many other more glamorous contracted players with whom she would become attached in the Hollywood-land that she would eventually embrace.

Although it doesn't have an original score Casamento has written some additional lyrics to the plethora of classic songs that fill the show, many of which are identified with Garland. How they are integrated is worth mentioning as they appear quite naturally and without pretention to reflect both the show's characters as well as the era and the places that are handsomely evoked by set designer Alexander Dodge, all enhanced by the vintage projections by Peter Nigrini. This is further confirmed by designer Linda Cho's period-perfect attire.

Such familiar songs as “You Made Me Love You,” “When You're Smiling” “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows” Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” and of course “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are fitted naturally and unforced in the action. Special bravos to orchestrators Larry Blank and David Libby and musical director Lawrence Yurman.

In Act I, the musical mainly focuses on young Judy's family life. If perfunctory attention is given to Frances's decidedly less talented sisters, her mother Ethel ( a terrific Leslie Margherita) is a major player as the familiarly pushy Hollywood-or-bust stage mother (think Gypsy's Mama Rose) who takes charge of her career. The musical also does not avoid making Ethel the initial enabler of Frances's initial dependence on prescription drugs. Chasing Rainbows may not be on the same exalted level of Gypsy, but it still has plenty to say about (as one of the songs tell us) “The Business We Call Show.”

Frances's affection for her father plays a significant role. Max Von Essen is excellent and poignant as the sexually conflicted Frank Gumm whose faltering marriage is as sad as his failing career as a small town movie theater owner. The plot follows Frances Gumm from her awkward start playing the vaudeville circuit with her sisters, to radio gigs and then on to the Hollywood Professional Children's School where she meets friend-for-life the dancing dynamo Mickey Rooney.

Jones, whose Tony-nominated choreography empowered both Holiday Inn and Tootsie) puts Chasing Rainbows's dancing ensemble through more of his intricate and imaginative dances with an emphasis on tap. A terrific number in Act I finds the young ladies at the professional children's school tap dancing away atop rows of desks while the young gentlemen — led by Mickey Rooney — not only dance but beat out the rhythm with drum sticks. Michael Wartella is spot-on perfect as the high-voltage Mickey nee Joe Yule. The wonderful Karen Mason hits a double whammy: first as Ma Lawlor the school head mistress (“All Ma's Children”) then as Kay MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer's smart as a whip secretary(“If Only”.) Stephen DeRosa earns laughs as the dimly despotic Mayer.

There are cameos galore. Shirley Temple is perfectly impersonated by the very young Violet Tinnirello. Christina Maxwell's shimmering coloratura embodies Deanna Durban and Sean Thompson's strides with attitude as the vain Clark Gable among other luminaries who have little more than cameos. But it is the studio's musical supervisor Roger Edens (a very fine Colin Hanlon) who recognizes Judy's talent and becomes her trusted ally and mentor. Definitely not one of the “beautiful girls,” Frances comes into her own as Judy when it becomes obvious to the studio through Eden that she is special.

The troubled production history of The Wizard of Oz gets ample stage time. It is enlivened by the singing and dancing led by the soon to be famously teamed Judy and Mickey. Whether you are fans of the Judy who, as the memorable Dorothy Gale, went down the yellow brick road in the 1939 classic, or of the incomparable adult superstar who held audiences in thrall through the thick and thin of her hard-earned fame, this delightful new musical is clearly calculated to bring waves of laughter, an occasional tear and mostly appreciative applause. It does.

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Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz
Directed & Choreographed by Denis Jones
Book by Marc Acito
Music Adapted by & Additional Music by David Libby
Conceived by & Additional lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento
Principals Include: Stephen DeRosa (Louis B. Mayer) Colin Hanlon (Roger Edens), Lesli Margherita (Ethel Gumm), Karen Mason (Ma Lawlor, Kay Koverman) Ruby Rakos (Judy Garland/Frances Gumm) Max Von Essen (Frank Gumm) Michael Wartella (Mickey Rooney/Joe Yule)
Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Matt Kraus
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Production Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson
Music Supervision & Arrangements: David Libby
Music Direction: Lawrence Yurman
Orchestrations: Larry Blank & David Libby
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.
973 - 376 - 4343
Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 1:30 and 8 pm; Sundays at 1:30 and 7 pm
From 09/26/19 Opened 10/06/19 Ends 10/27/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/06/19

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