Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 7, 2016

Chasing Rainbows-The Road To Oz

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT 
through November 27, 2016
by R.E. Smith

As befits a musical about the early life of the incomparable Judy Garland, “Chasing Rainbows” hits not a single false note in any aspect of this stellar production.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski (c)
Tracing the life of Francis Gumm up until “The Wizard of Oz,” there is a slight air of melancholy as the audience is aware of how the story will end years later, but the show succeeds in getting us to invest in the hope and promise of a young girl’s talent. The book, by Marc Acito, gives the performers great characters that, in lesser hands, could have easily been broad clichés. Each one, no matter how famous, is given a depth and dimension often missing in musicals.

“Rainbows” is really the story of a girl and her family, especially her father. Kevin Earley, as loving but flawed “Frank Gumm”, charms from the first moment and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is heartbreaking. Ruby Rakos has been living with the role of Francis/Judy while the show was in development. She is clearly comfortable and at ease, with youthful enthusiasm, crackerjack timing and oh, can she sing! Thankfully, her performance is more evocation than mimicry, emphasizing the young girl rather than the post “Oz” star. It would be almost impossible to pick out one of her numbers as being better than another, but rest assured she does “Over the Rainbow” proud.

The casting is spot-on throughout, from Karen Mason as Judy’s strongest advocate “Kay Koveman” to Michael Wartella as “Joe Yule” (Ok, Mickey Rooney!). Even the actresses playing the Gumm Sisters at various ages physically resemble each other and their harmonies together are perfection. Ella Briggs as “Baby Francis” and Gary Milner as “George Jessel” are audience favorites in brief but memorable turns.

Even with over 30 era-appropriate songs, like “Beautiful Girl” and “You Made Me Love You” the show briskly dances along without shortchanging the narrative. Chris Bailey’s choreography nicely evokes the heyday of big Hollywood musicals despite Goodspeed’s small footprint. The musical arrangements do a great service in making even the famously familiar sound fresh. Slight lyrical changes unobtrusively help propel the story through song and each selection seems custom written for the story.

Fans of old Hollywood and the tales of Francis’ early career will love all the “ah-ha!” moments set to music. Musical theatre buffs will be impressed by the breadth of singing and dancing talent on display. Ultimately, the entire audience is simply glad to have traveled for a little while with an endearingly talented little girl on her road to becoming Judy Garland.