Judy Garland’s adult life Judy has been well documented, but not too much is known about her fractured childhood as part of a family vaudeville team. Her struggling early years are now revealed in a new musical, “Chasing Rainbows The Road to Oz.” It’s at Goodspeed Musicals, the first regional theater to win two Tony Awards, in East Haddam, Connecticut through November 27.
Although the show is still in development there are many outstanding reasons to see it now: the cast, especially Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland (born Frances Gumm) in a show stopping all singing all dancing, all outstanding comedic and dramatic turn. Through extensive research and practice, practice, practice Ms. Rakos sounded astonishingly like the young Judy, and her performance of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” is alone well worth the price of a ticket.
Of course, if you’re Judy Garland, on or off screen, Mickey Rooney won’t be far away. Two pals in a pod that made up a memorably dazzling team. Michael Wartella as Mickey proved to be as good a performer as MGM’s golden boy in every way. He is a remarkably talented performer who lights up the stage with his near-manic infectious energy. The “All Ma’s Children” number is as flamboyant as any Micky-Judy film scene. Definitely an equally great reason to see this show.
As movie buffs know, Louis B. Mayer, long-time head of MGM, was the studio’s lion that roared and his secretary (aka formidable executive assistant, Kay Koverman) was the legendary lioness with the golden horn to LB’s ear. These two key people in Judy’s life are superbly written characters and played to perfection by Broadway veteran Michael McCormick and award-winning cabaret star, Karen Mason. She also broadly plays “Ma Lawlor” the over-the-top school teacher on the MGM lot. This duo of charismatic and gifted actors adds to the plethora of reasons to see the show.
Judy’s parents, Frank and Ethel Gumm, are exceptionally well played – singing, dancing and acting – by Kevin Earley (a memorable Frank Butler in Goodspeed’s “Annie Get Your Gun”) and Salley Wilfert, who plays an ambitious stage mother with whom you can have empathy.
The delightful cast has Gary Milner (as legendary Roger Edens and Georgie Jessel) and Lea Mancarella as Shirley Temple, Piper Birney (ensemble, Judy’s sister Virginia), the irrepressible Ella Briggs (ensemble, Baby Frances Gumm), Claire Griffin (ensemble, Deanna Durbin/Young Mary Jane Gumm), Lucy Horton (ensemble, grown up Mary Jane Gumm), Andrea Laxton (ensemble, grown up Virginia Gumm) and Jesse Sharp (ensemble, Bill Gilmore).
The other ensemble members must be mentioned because they are fine singers and dancers and when just standing in the background they were always completely in character. These wonderful performers include Lissa deGuzman, Colby Dezelick, Jennifer Evans, Berklea Going, Jordana Grolnick, Michael Hartung, Dan Higgins and Bryan Thomas Hunt. The swings are Joseph Fierberg and Elise Mestichelli.
The show is directed by Tyne Rafaeli who was Associate Director for the recent Broadway revivals of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King & I” (Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical).
Choreography is by Chris Bailey, whose has stellar Broadway and West End credits, including “The Entertainer” starring Kenneth Branagh.
Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and costumes are designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward whose credits include the West End production of “Women On the Verge.” She won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Costume Design for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Cymbeline.”
Lighting is designed by Ken Billington, who has designed nearly 100 Broadway productions, including, “Chicago” (Tony Award for Best Lighting Design), “Sweeney Todd” and the recent “A Sign of the Times” at The Terris Theatre. Sound Design is invariably and wonderfully executed by Jay Hilton, who is in his 31st smash season at Goodspeed.
Hair and Wig Design are by Mark Adam Rampmeyer, whose work can been seen at The Goodspeed in the recent productions of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Anything Goes,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” and “The Most Happy Fella,” to name a few.
The Music Director for “Chasing Rainbows” is the multi-talented Michael O’Flaherty, who is in his 25th season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director. Bill Thomas is Assistant Music Director. Orchestrations by Dan DeLange who has orchestrated dozens of musicals for Goodspeed including this season’s ‘Anything Goes” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” The perfect casting for this show and many other Goodspeed shows is by Paul Hardt of SH Entertainment.
“Chasing Rainbows” was conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby with a book by Marc Acito. The music was adapted by David Libby, a music director, arranger, composer, and pianist. Well-known Judy Garland historian and author John Fricke serves as Creative Consultant and Historian for the project. Executive Director of Goodspeed Musicals is Michael Gennaro who oversees three musicals each season at The Goodspeed in East Haddam, Conn. and additional productions at The Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn.
Performances: Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). Tickets: Start at $29.00. All prices subject to change based on availability. Call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860-873-8668, or go online to www. goodspeed.org
Photos accompanying this article courtesy Goodspeed Musicals and Diane Sobolewski – and a big thank you to Actors Equity.
By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle