Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of "Chasing Rainbows"

In 1976 a little girl named Andrea McArdle, full of spunk and gusto, wowed audiences at the Goodspeed Opera House with her powerful vocals as Little Orphan Annie in the original production of Annie.  Forty years later another young lady, albeit somewhat older, is again making a lasting impression on Goodspeed crowds as a teenage Judy Garland in the musical Chasing Rainbows.  The actress is Ruby Rakos and her rich, dynamic soprano and spot on portrayal of the well-known, famous star elevates this production to a wholly satisfying theatrical experience.
On the MGM backlot with Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The storyline follows Ms. Garland, who’s original name was Frances Gumm, and her family of two sisters, mother and father, from a cute-as-can-be youngster through her mid-teen years.  The show concludes as she begins to film her classic role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Librettist Marc Acito covers a lot of ground during this timeframe, but even as the years breezily pass, the musical does not come across as episodic, which has torpedoed many a biographic endeavor.  We witness young Judy’s trials and tribulations with her dysfunctional home life and trying to gain a foothold in Hollywood.  It was interesting to watch an overly self-important Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, continually ignore the teenager’s impressive talents.

The score of the show is comprised of songs from the American songbook from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  They include “I Can’t Get You Anything But Love,” “Broadway Rhythm,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Bill,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”  Be forewarned:  toe-tapping-itis has been reported during performances.
Members of the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Overall, the cast is first-rate.  Notables include, first and foremost, Ruby Rakos as the teenage Judy Garland.  The actress is enthusiastic, earnest, impassioned and exudes a down home charm.  And she can sing, whether it’s belting out one of the show’s spirited numbers or caressing a tender ballad.  Ella Briggs as Baby Frances is a conundrum.  You sit there wondering how can a seven year old—yes, seven years old—have such a powerful voice and fearless attitude, whether singing, dancing or acting.  Micahel Wartella as Mickey Rooney provides a spark plug to the production whenever it begins to sag.  He is carefree, energetic, and fun to watch.  Gary Milner brings a sanguine as well as world-weary disposition to the role of Roger Edens, a composer and arranger at the studio and mentor to the actress.  Karen Mason is marvelous as the business like, serious minded Kay Koverman, Mayer’s secretary and guardian angel to Garland.  Lastly, Michael McCormick is pugnacious and a real SOB as Louis B. Mayer.

The strength of choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance routines are how they begin very innocuously and naturally, slowly building in intensity, many times to a feverish pitch.  He creates controlled mayhem and frenetic production numbers with this group of exuberant, tireless young performers.
Judy (Ruby Rakos) and Mickey (Michael Wartella) are having a "Hollywood Party" with the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Tyne Rafaeli smartly keeps Ms. Rakos center stage with her full-throttled voice.  She adroitly and smoothly moves the show through its numerous scenes without losing a beat or having the production appear too disjointed.  Working with minimal sets and props allows her to keep the focus on the characters, which are well-drawn and more three-dimensional then one might expect.

Chasing Rainbows, an entertaining and, at times, rousing look at the life of the young Judy Garland with a star turn by the young actress Ruby Rakos.  The musicals continues at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 27th.

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