|Ruby Rakos (centre left) and the cast of Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)|
Ruby Rakos is so good as the teenage Judy Garland, née Frances Gumm, in the new musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz that she alone justifies the trip to see the production at the Goodspeed Opera House. As a vocalist Rakos can harness both a belter’s power and a crooner’s sweetness; if you think you’ve heard enough covers of “Over the Rainbow” to last a lifetime, you might reconsider when you hear her marry delicacy to emotionality in the show’s finale. In her youth Garland had a remarkable ability to use that powerful, controlled alto to channel a depth of emotion that was startling in an adolescent. (She was sixteen when M-G-M cast her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and took her career into the stratosphere.) That’s why, in the musical, her mother, Ethel Gumm (Sally WIlfert), relentlessly promotes her as the little girl with the grown-up voice – though that description shortchanges her other quality, a rousing Midwestern-flavored ebullience that gave her swing numbers, like “Everybody Sing” (from The Broadway Melody of 1938) and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” (from Listen, Darling) a soaring, look-ma-no-hands vocal athleticism. Rakos gets all of that without ever trying to imitate Garland; and because she’s a real actress as well as an accomplished singer, she also gets her subject’s vaudevillian wiseacre side and her neediness, that almost frighteningly intense wide-eyed dreaminess. And she can hoof. Not only can you see why she was cast; you can’t imagine a search for a young Judy that could turn up anybody else in her class.
Chasing Rainbows, which chronicles Garland’s career from her young days on the road with her show-biz family – her parents and two older sisters – in the late twenties (when she’s played by the highly capable Ella Briggs) through the shooting of The Wizard in 1938, is a major enterprise, a nearly-three-hour bio directed by Tyne Rafaeli with a cast of two dozen performers and an unusually detailed book by Mario Acito (conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby). It’s partly a backstage musical and partly a jukebox musical with a range of songs from the teens, twenties and thirties to shape the feelings of the characters. For example, the theme song of her hapless father Frank (Kevin Earley), whom she adulates, is “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” originally written for a Broadway show called Oh, Look! and performed by Garland in the 1941 movie Ziegfeld Girl. Acito takes a few understandable shortcuts, like eliminating Garland’s brief tenure at 20th Century-Fox before M-G-M gave her a contract – her first full-length movie was Pigskin Parade, a collegiate musical in which she delivered “The Texas Tornado” – and he gets one or two of his facts wrong. (When Judy auditions with “Should I?,” the pianist who became her favorite arranger, Roger Edens, claims he wrote it, but actually it was penned by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown for the early talkie Lord Byron of Broadway and resurfaced in the Freed-Brown jukebox musical Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. The song list in the program gets the information right.) But he doesn’t try to falsify the story, to substitute composites for real-life personalities, or to evade any of the darker elements of the story, like the marital tensions between Frank, who was gay, and Ethel, who became involved with another man (Jesse Sharp), or the regimen of diet pills the studio put Judy on and her mother supported because she was built like a singer and not, like Metro’s famously glamorous slate of women, like a magazine model. Acito’s serious-mindedness and his honesty earn your respect, even though as a playwright he’s erratic: strong when he takes a cynical, wised-up tone to the material, weak when he renders it in melodramatic, maudlin scenes, like all of the ones built around Frank. The script is best when it’s funny, as it always is when it gets to L.B. Mayer (the affable and quick-witted Michael McCormick), the studio head who was eager to fire Judy (he referred to her as “the fat one”) and had to be persuaded by Edens (Gary Milner) and by Mayer’s persistent, hard-headed assistant Kay Koverman (Karen Mason) to give her a chance. Or when it includes the hijinks of the irrepressible Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella), Judy’s best pal from their Hollywood High days even before he became her most celebrated co-star. Most winning of all is the dramatization of the preparations for making The Wizard of Oz and the early days of shooting it, which is a special treat for the millions of us who have never been able to get enough of the movie.
|Ruby Rakos and Gary Milner in Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)|
The use of the songs – David Libby is the musical adaptor and he and Dan DeLange supervised the orchestrations – is similarly erratic. Libby or someone else has changed or added lyrics to make some of the tunes fit the dramatic situation, sometimes ingeniously; at other times the alterations are awkward and a stretch. Still, the numbers – there are many of them, though often truncated so that you never feel they’re being asked to do the work of the book writer – are a pleasure, especially when the choreographer, Chris Bailey, gets to take over, as in “All Ma’s Children” ad “Everybody Sing” in the first act and “Swing, Mister Mendelsohn” and “Got a Pair of New Shoes” in the second. This is a Goodspeed musical, so everyone can sing, everyone can dance, and the ensemble, under Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction, is highly skillful. A word about “All Ma’s Children”: this is a song that started life as “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” from the Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races, where it’s featured in a particularly offensive number. Of course, this twenty-first-century show changes “chillun” to “children,” but if you know the song, which is lively and delightful, it’s weird to hear “Ma” replacing “God,” as if there were something implicitly racist about the phrase “all God’s children.” There’s an excuse – Judy and Mickey are leading a chorus of fellow Hollywood High students in a classroom run by one Ma Lawlor – but it’s not convincing.
Wartella is terrific. Milner does a fine job with the role of Roger Edens, but an even better one as the vaudeville comic George Jessel, who is credited here, as he sometimes is elsewhere, with coming up with a stage name for Frances Gumm when she performs with him – here on the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Judy.” Jessel is now largely forgotten, but he was a big name in the early part of the twentieth century – he starred in The Jazz Singer on Broadway and then turned down the offer to repeat his performance when Warner Brothers filmed it as the first part-talkie, so Al Jolson and not Jessel became the first star of the talkie era. And maybe he wouldn’t have anyway: he didn’t make much of a splash in the movies he did turn out, perhaps because his style was a little specialized for the big screen. (He did better on TV.) Jessel could be funny, but I have to say that Milner, emulating his persona, is funnier. Mason is too hammy in the brief role of Ma Lawlor, but she scores as Kay Koverman, combining toughness, maternal warmth and elegance.
Earley and Wilfert struggle somewhat with the more complicated roles of Judy’s parents. For Wilfert the problem may be mostly in the writing. Acito doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about Ethel – she’s partly but not entirely a stage mother who puts her daughter’s career ahead of other considerations, and it’s not clear how much of her failure to watch out for Judy derives from exhaustion, or her own marital unhappiness. Sometimes she just comes across as distracted. In Earey’s case the trouble is more with the performer himself, who more than carries his vocal responsibilities but doesn’t have enough charm to make sense of Judy’s adoration of him and his ability to buck her up. (When he dies, young, of meningitis, something magical goes out of her life.)
Chasing Rainbows is far from perfect, but it’s hard to envision a dramatic version of this material that would be. The 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows had an inadequate script, though Judy Davis’s spookily brilliant channeling of Garland made it unforgettable; I think it’s the best work she’s ever done. It’s hard for anyone working on this particular celebrity to avoid melodrama, camp or unthinking adoration, and Acito steers clear of two out of three. Most of the recent stage musical bios, like Beautiful (about Carole King) or Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), are embarrassingly threadbare. Whatever its flaws,Chasing Rainbows is the work of people who care deeply about their subject and haven’t stinted in their efforts to do her justice.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.