Judy Garland’s voice was unparalleled and rich, an emotive contralto that lasted long into her later years with a loud and winning showiness to go with its melodramatic nuances. But that voice concealed a troubled backstory, as the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm toted the baggage of a closeted gay father, an ugly duckling’s insecurity and the twitch of addiction through her entire life. Between the ravages of drugs and drink and the fears of being picked last, Garland was dead by 47.
As Renée Zellweger earns Oscar buzz for her mournful, cutting portrayal of the latter-day “Judy,” a new musical at the New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse looks at her earliest years — the ups-and-downs of when Gumm turned Garland. Fresh-faced musical “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” conceived by Tina Marie Casamento and written by Marc Acito, looks to the time before Garland became the darling of MGM and the star of 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
That “Chasing Rainbows,” with a score of Tin Pan Alley classics adapted and arranged by David Libby, stays as wide-eyed and hokey as one of the Dream Factory’s grandest musicals, while still peering into the darkness of Garland’s early life, is what makes this new staged work alluring. That it merely touches on her harshest realities — the drive for MGM’s female stars to be thin at any cost; the family torn apart by Garland’s closeted gay father, a man she adored — with saccharine sentiment makes “Chasing Rainbows” frustrating.
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Somewhere between the beguiling and the baffling is a good, old-fashioned, big, schmaltzy musical filled with boffo hits, hearty vocals, snazzy tap dance routines and a mawkishly told history of Garland’s very real heartache.
Softening the true story of Judy’s shrewish stage mother, “Chasing Rainbows” finds mom Ethel (Lesli Margherita) benevolently raising a solo Baby Gumm (Sophie Knapp, with a voice just as mature as young Garland) then an adolescent Frances-turned-Judy (Ruby Rakos), putting her through the paces of a sister act touring vaudeville’s stages. Notably absent when taking the family from Minnesota onto the road to Hollywood is Ethel’s husband and the Gumm Sisters’ father, Francis (Max Von Essen).
An adoring papa to his youngest, his attentions are diverted by his attraction to another married man. This fissure, though, hardly bends the powerful emotional bond between father and doting daughter.
While husband and wife softly sing the James Monaco/Joe McCarthy ballad “You Made Me Love You” with soul and just a bite of spitefulness, father Frank and daughter Judy sing Joseph McCarthy and Harry Carroll’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” with tenderness and melancholy. The sweet trill of von Essen’s baritone and Rakos’ muted brassiness conjure a close-knit vocal entanglement that makes up for a script that elides the impact that the young Garland felt from her father’s absence.
Rakos lends Garland her own light and force, and Hallelujah-come-on-get-happy for that. Whether tackling James F. Hanley’s jazzy “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” or E.Y. “Yip” Harburg/Harold Arlen’s forlorn “Over the Rainbow,” the actress never apes the Great Judy, but instead leaves a faint impression of the legend while making her own mark with the material.
Von Essen’s father is given increasingly less stage time as the show goes on, and the father’s separation from his family grows deeper as Judy and company grow more confident the closer they get to Hollywood.
Once there, Garland meets her soon-to-be rival, Shirley Temple (an amazingly cutesy and cocksure Violet Tinnirello, in one of the night’s best performances), and Joe Yule, aka Mickey Rooney, portrayed to zealously hammy and overly horny perfection by Michael Wartella. Once Garland and Rooney get together, “Chasing Rainbows” practically bursts out of its hemmed-tight skirts with boisterous, big-band dance numbers like “All Ma’s Children.”
Credit director/choreographer Denis Jones (“Holiday Inn,” “Tootsie”) for a genuinely gleeful tap number that embraces the boldest aspects of MGM’s magic, again without imitation. The tap theatrics continue with the dance a capella of “Got a Pair of New Shoes” with the band dropping out, leaving the ensemble to dance, unencumbered and unaccompanied. Snazzy stuff, that.
Garland doesn’t get the chance to enjoy growing up in the Dream Factory, since she must hustle for roles often given to more glamorous, less deserving young stars, and take speedy weight-loss medications in order to measure up (literally) to the harsh demands of unfeeling studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Stephen DeRosa). As with the softening of Garland’s mother, the legendary Mayer is played as more of a friendly grouch than the ghoul that he was, and even DeRosa’s vocal turn on “Beautiful Girls” makes him seem more of a growly mensch than a monster.
Luckily for Judy, Mayer’s secretary Kay Koverman (an exceptional Karen Mason) and MGM’s lead coach, Roger Edens (Colin Hanlon) are Garland’s twin guardian angels, and are awarded two of the night’s best numbers in the mood-swinging “If/Only” (for Mason) and Edens’ own “In Between.”
By the end of “Chasing Rainbows,” Judy gets her biggest wish — the starring role in “The Wizard of Oz,” followed by unstoppable stardom — and yet, we know that the happiness she craved forever escaped her grasp. This new musical touches on the troubles that came with the rainbow, but could have emphasized the bitter pill over the saccharine sweetener.