Review: 'Chasing Rainbows' by Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

East Haddam, CT - There is something exciting about seeing a brand new musical, even if it is not completely polished and ready for the stage. It certainly is not everyday that a local theatre announces that it will be presenting a new work, perhaps only been seen by a few at a staged reading or small preview. For me it feels like I am getting in on the ground floor and I will be able to say that I knew the piece before it was famous...or not. 

Goodspeed Musicals is presenting a brand new musical that chronicles a time in the life of Judy Garland before she starred in MGM musicals and ‘A Star is Born,’ a time when she was simply “the girl with the great big voice.” The musical is aptly titled ‘Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz’ because most of the two acts take the audience on the often bumpy road that the young Judy Garland had to traverse in order to star in the beloved film version of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ 

We watch as this awkward girl with an amazing singing voice grows into THE Judy Garland. The script by Marc Acito tells the true story of her complicated childhood across her early vaudeville-to-Hollywood years (from the ages of five to 16) and it was tough to see the teenaged Francis work hard to hold the Gumm family together. There are equal parts of heartache and hope that are endearingly intertwined with the classic songs that made her famous and many other songs from the era that were new to me. As best I can tell, no additional music was written for the show.

I learned much about the early life of this star in a strong book written by Marc Acito. While I felt that the first act could have benefitted from some judicious trimming, I did enjoy the scenes where Baby Frances (played beautifully by the young Ella Briggs, who was Zuzu is last season’s ‘A Wonderful Life’) interacted with her devoted father. The best parts of the second act for me started when preparations for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ began.

Ruby Rakos makes her Goodspeed debut to play the teenaged Judy Garland; we must suspend belief to accept her as a teenager, but her face evoked the younger version of the star. She sang well and with charm she nailed both the spunky parts and the pathos of the star to be born. Michael Wartella was a standout in the role of a young Mickey Rooney and also played Joe Yule. Along with Ms. Rakos, he appeared in the production of ‘Chasing Rainbows’ at Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, as did Claire Griffin (the young Mary Jane Gumm and Deanna Durbin) and Andrea Laxton as Virginia Gumm. 
Sally Wilfert played the driven stage mother Ethel Gumm and Kevin Earley made an impression in the role of the family patriarch Frank Gumm. Jesse Sharp made his Goodspeed debut as Mrs. Gumm’s second husband Bill Gilmore. Michael McCormick was also strong as studio head L.B. Mayer, while Gary Milner did well as both George Jessel and Judy’s musical mentor Roger Edens. Lea Mancarella, age 11, played the iconic Shirley Temple. CT resident Piper Birney played the young Virginia Gumm early in the first act in her Goodspeed debut. 

The strongest performance for me was Karen Mason as studio teacher Ma Lawlor and secretary to J.B. Kay Koverman. This Broadway actress was perfectly cast in both memorable roles and “If/Only” was her solo. 

The music and dance numbers were well executed on the small Goodspeed stage that features a fine set designed by Kristen Robinson. The period costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward worked well and the lighting by Ken Billington worked wonders for everything. David Libby did the musical adaptation with Michael O’Flaherty doing the music direction and it all sounded great. Choreography by Chris Bailey was fun and Tyne Rafaeli made many smart direction choices. 

‘Chasing Rainbows’ will recount Judy Garland’s road to Oz and Hollywoodland through Nov. 27 at The Goodspeed in East Haddam, CT. 

Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewsk