REVIEW: Flat Rock Playhouse’s ‘Chasing Rainbows’ Shines Brighter than a Parade of MGM Stars

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Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in "Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz" at Flat Rock Playhouse. Photo by Brian Edwards.
Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” at Flat Rock Playhouse. Photo by Brian Edwards.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC
There is a pot of gold at the end of Flat Rock Playhouse’s “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz.”  Her name is Ruby Rakos and she plays the teenage Judy Garland in this world premiere that reveres vaudeville, MGM musicals and one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

Judy Garland’s tempestuous life is engrained into her legend as her much as her musical and movie repertoire. But Flat Rock Playhouse’s world premiere musical biography about this American icon, “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” does not depict the “A Star is Born” Garland nor the tortured Judy at Carnegie Hall.

This show — conceived and produced by New York-based Tina Marie Casamento Libby —traces her ascent from the preschooler Baby Frances Gumm (the spunky, adorable Kyra Hewitt) to 16-year-old Judy Garland (a brilliant Ms. Ruby Rakos) as she prepares for “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938.

If anything, this chronicle of Garland’s early life —with a book by Marc Acito and magnificent, updated arrangements of her songs and period music by David Libby — is more aligned with her appearance in the backstage revue “Broadway Melody of 1938” (featuring Rakos’ powerful renditions of “Mr. Gable,” a fan’s love letter to Clark Gable, and “You Made Me Love You”) and vaguely foreshadows the Midwest characters and setting in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (except with only three daughters and a different World’s Fair).

As a musical, “Chasing Rainbows” lies somewhere between “Gypsy” and “The Ice Follies of 1939” (if the film were set on dry land in the California desert), and follows the Gumm family from Minnesota to Los Angeles as stage parents, Frank and Ethel (Ben Crawford and Wendi Bergamini) traverse the Great Depression and manage their daughters’ vaudeville act, the Gumm Sisters — Mary Jane (Katie Drinkard), Virginia (Andrea Laxton) and young Frances.

Mistakenly called the “Glum” Sisters, the girls finally get noticed at the 1933 World’s Fair when the trio opens at the Oriental Theatre for vaudeville and film star George Jessel played by Michael McCorry Rose, who is sensational in “Judy,” an Isadora Duncan-inspired number with dancers and body garlands,  hence the name change. For the remainder of the story, Rose also plays her mentor and MGM composer George Edens, who became her lifelong friend and frequent musical collaborator, who wrote “Dear Mr. Gable” and contributed music to her later films (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Easter Parade,” “Strike Up the Band,” “A Star is Born,” etc.) and her record-setting concerts in 1951 at New York’s Palace Theatre and the London Palladium.

The Gumms, with utter faith and confidence, ultimately embrace the standout Judy and her enormous talent and enroll her in the Hollywood Professional Children’s School which leads to a contract at MGM. And as one can imagine, “Chasing Rainbows” is filled with a coterie of “more stars than there are in heaven,” as Louis B. Mayer (played affably by Kevin B. McGlynn in a more comic than ruthless portrayal) once boasted about the MGM lineup: Lana Turner (Maddy Kinsella), Garland’s her romantic and professional rival; MGM’s biggest moneymaker Shirley Temple (Nicole Johanson); Clark Gable (Zachary Berger) and Jean Harlow (Alexandria Van Paris); and a fantastic Claire Griffin as the lyric soprano Deanna Durbin in “Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn” and “Il Bacio.”

But none will be more influential to Garland than her pal and future frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney (aka Joe Yule), played to the hilt by the rambunctious and dazzling Michael Wartella, who even beats the drums and bears some resemblance to Rooney as well. Also notable in this show is Janet Dickinson, who nails the role of Mayer’s assistant and Garland’s studio advocate and fairy godmother, Kay Koverman.

But unlike Ms. Rakos, Garland was not considered a beauty — she was a dowdy dresser, criticized about her weight and looks, and even called a hunchback. And her voice was far more mature than her age, which led her to toil in obscurity for a couple of years at MGM (“In Between”). Her “girl next door” image was her biggest “flaw,” but ultimately became her greatest asset ( her voice aside) when she rebuffed the studio’s plans to alter her appearance and her identity.

Ms. Rakos, who is in almost every scene, is self-assured and passionately committed to this role whether she is excited about her future (“Goin’ Hollywood”), lamenting her father’s absence (“If I Had You”), not enjoying her first kiss (with Rooney), or performing at a star-studded soiree in “Hollywood Party/Should I?”. And when she belts out Garland standards such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (with Crawford) or “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” there are definitely phrasings and shades of Garland’s jazz voice that enchant and sometimes downright mesmerize.

The book heavily mines Garland’s relationship with her father, admirably and charmingly embodied by the dapper Crawford, who is stupendous in “Always Remember,” “Shooting High,” “Beautiful Girls” and show’s “title” song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” a popular vaudeville tune that Garland sang in the 1941 film “Ziegfeld Girl.”

Acito places much emphasis on Frank’s homosexuality, the disintegration of his marriage and the impact of his death on Garland. This dynamic —as well as the infamous steady stream of prescription drugs that the studio arranged for Judy and her parents readily encouraged — was explored in the TV miniseries “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” based on daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir and starring Tammy Blanchard and Judy Davis. But while there is no train wreck Judy to see here, the seeds of her drug abuse and emotional scars are certainly firmly planted.

And even though the musical ends before filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” fans of Frank L. Baum will not be disappointed for there are many allusions to the movie: “Got a New Pair of Shoes” and several re-envisioned Harold Arden and Yip Harburg compositions from the film (albeit in different contexts) are featured such as “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “If I Only Had a Brain.” And, of course, Rakos delivers an inspired and beautiful “Over the Rainbow,” which Mayer almost cut from the film.

“Chasing Rainbows” is skillfully and fluidly directed and choreographed by Jeff Whiting, who has an impeccable Broadway and national tour credentials including “Bullets Over Broadway and “Young Frankenstein,” with Susan Stroman-trained Julianne Katz as assistant director. There is a clever actress switcheroo when Rakos suddenly appears from underneath the bed covers, big show-stopping numbers with swing and tap steps (“Everybody Sing” and “Meet the Beat of My Heart”) and an impressively-orchestrated dream/hallucination sequence (“Oz Montage”) that mimics the tornado scene in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Libby’s re-interpreted musical and vocal arrangements — and there are many — are fresh and inventive and Alex Shields is music director and conductor of the 8-piece band.

Dennis C. Maulden’s scenic design uses a sophisticated and complex system of dual moving platforms that constantly shifts the set pieces and settings but the palette is near-absent of color, creating an almost black-and-white world (even “glum,” if you will) that mirrors the Depression and laborious struggles the Gumms faced early in Ms. Garland’s career. Shawn Duan’s projections on Japanese-style panels provide many of the locales, and are visually striking, particularly in the opening scene on multiple walls when Rakos is filmed for wardrobe and make-up tests and in the driving scene. This production also features a 1930s  car (or electric golf car) that astounds the first time we see it, but does become superfluous (and precariously dangerous) after that since the driver has to make a U-turn.

Much of the “Technicolor” comes through Ashli Arnold’s spectacular costumes, especially for the ladies, and the Brittany Rappise’s wig designs. Stephen Terry designed the lovely lighting scheme and Kurt Conway is sound designer.

To cement the book’s authenticity, the producers hired John Fricke as Creative Consultant. Fricke is the world’s preeminent expert on both Judy Garland and “The Wizard of Oz” and an Emmy and Grammy-winning producer of Garland documentaries and retrospectives, and author of three Garland books and four books on “Oz.”

“Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz” will be staged next September at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut (the launch pad for the original productions of “Annie” and “Man of La Mancha”) on its hopeful path to the Great White Way. Catch it now or you will have to see it in New York or wait for the national tour to hit the Upstate in a few years.

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz will run through December 19 at the Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock, NC. Performances are Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets start at $25.Call the Playhouse Box Office at 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org

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