Rainbows The Road To Oz
By David Schultz
so much media attention to the uber talented Ms. Garland in her waning years
and troubled drug addled/drinking end of life…it is a pleasure and breath of
fresh air to roll back the years to see the very early stages of this beloved
entertainer. This spirited valentine to this teenage MGM teen star moves with
cinematic scenes that show in detail how it all happened.
dark edges of her youth have been carefully smoothed over by playwright Marc
Acito. All the elements are on view…. the way she was marketed to the public,
driven to lose weight, highly addictive pills popped in ever increasing doses,
driven to succeed with a volcanic drive, pushed to the limit by her obsessive
mother. But these destructive elements are downplayed instead offering a poignant
look into how she sacrificed so much as she became a musical superstar. In this
telling her father had a huge influence on her life, and in effect this musical
is a homage and gracious touch of grace from father to daughter.
opening scenes depict young Frances (Ruby Rakos) performing with her two
sisters in a musical trio called The Gumm Sisters. They are stuck in
Minnesota, without much hope until her father Frank (Max Von Essen) and her
mother Ethel (Lesli Margherita) move the brood to California, to hopefully hit
the big time. Frank operates and manages a movie theater, and lovingly presses
young Frances to audition for various musical acts. Her domineering mother also
presses hard and drives her three girls into never-ending lackluster gigs. The
musical doesn’t shy away from some unseemly parts of the tale…seems Frank has
been secretly having a series of hidden affairs with men from town. This
development gives a dark back story, as Frank is fired and separates from the
family. Ethel keeps her three girls away from the situation and gives an
ever-increasing push for her kids to succeed at all costs.
Frances is enrolled into a dramatic arts school and her vocal talents are
quickly detected. One glaring problem…it seems her appearance and average
weight were not at all in line with the superficial glamorous look of the stars
back in the 1930s. But despite the initial difficulty of her appearance, she
makes quite a splash with her classmates and teacher (Karen Mason).
Wartella and Ruby Rakos
seems to coalesce and come together when she meets an eager bright faced
student named Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella). And in lickety split time
Frances is renamed Judy Garland. Is it true that vaudeville comedian George
Jessel renamed her on the spot in an impromptu stage performance? Well…indeed,
yes it seems.
Mickey and Judy films proved very popular, yet limited for both of them. There
are just so many ways to say “Let’s Put on A Show”! The remainder of the
musical chronicles the entry of Judy into high society, and attempts to gain
film acclaim. Her constant struggles with weight as she is fitfully groomed to
become a star, prove to be a consistent stumbling block.
amusing appearance by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (Stephen DeRosa) drives home the
way in which she was consistently pushed into a preset visual mold by the
studio that she couldn’t fit into. The familiar plotlines lead tantalizingly
to the early stages of the making of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. To
think that the original Dorothy slated to lead the film was none other than
Shirley Temple! Everyone knows who snagged the part in the end. But the fun in
this musical is seeing how the film, with a plethora of missteps and rewrites
came to fruition.
new music written for this piece is perfectly in tune with the era. The music
adapted by & additional music is penned by David Libby. But the standout
music…. who woulda guessed are the classic songs that embrace the evening. With
songs like “You Made Me Love You”, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, “I Can’t Give
You Anything But Love”, and “Over The Rainbow”, it is hard not to swoon.
exhilarating choreography by Director Denis Jones hits many high points. The
over the top tap-dancing is complex, intricate and blissful. An early scene at
the school that the students attend has a mind-blowing set piece that gives tap
dancing aficionados something to savor. Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge works
well under limited means with tasteful visual touches throughout. Ditto for
Costume Designer Linda Cho, her spot-on colors and textures in her couture
envelopes her performers, and crisply defines the 1930’s era with a keen
performer Ruby Rakos bears an eerie resemblance to the young Judy Garland, and
sings like a dream. The future seems limitless in the telling of this tale, the
musical ends on the cusp of the filming of the Oz film. The actors and crew had
no idea, no doubt on the impact the film would have on generations to come.
Knowing how it would all play out for this singular singer in the decades ahead
is bittersweet. The pleasure in this rare and upbeat version is seeing how it
all came together. A mere 80 years ago the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz gave us
the yellow brick road, and we have been traipsing and skipping on those golden
bricks ever since.
at The Paper Mill Playhouse
Brookside Drive, Millburn N.J.
376 4343. PaperMill.org
until October 27th