Once in a great while, you can see a musical with great dancing, astonishing singing actors and actresses, and smashing production values. Look no further than Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, the first production of the season from Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. It’s time to get a group of friends, frenemies, whomever, together with someone who drives a car and hasten across New Jersey to the newly-redesigned theatre. If you love musicals, you won’t be disappointed.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz began at Goodspeed Musicals in 2016 in East Haddam, Connecticut, having its premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse, Flat Rock, North Carolina. With a few tweaks and some cast changes, Paper Mill has brought us all a gift: a spectacular musical with Book by Marc Acito, with adapted music and additional music by David Libby, conceived by and with additional lyrics by Tina Marie Casamento. The plot of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz follows the road the future Judy Garland needed to take from child performer Frances Gumm to Hollywood legend-in-the-making as the young star of the MGM hit The Wizard of Oz.
Songs from the period are artfully sung or slightly tailored to fit the story. Standards such as “You Made Me Love You” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” co-exist alongside new numbers “Hollywood Party/Should I” and “Got a Pair of New Shoes.”
Singing these songs are knockouts like the fresh, new Ruby Ramos as Frances Gumm/Judy Garland. “Wow” is the word to explain Ruby Ramos. Every number she sings hits a home run out of the park. How she keeps up such boundless energy with an indefatigable technique must be heard and seen to be believed. Ms. Ramos dances up a storm as well. She is simply amazing. Broadway star Mark von Essen is Frank Gumm, Judy’s father, who has a dark secret first only hinted at but later revealed to be his bisexuality. Frank earned a reputation in town, so the family had to pack up and leave for Hollywood (well, a dusty town about an hour’s drive away). Eros cannot be denied, and soon the family must split. This split is acutely felt by Frances who adores her father. And the story continues for you to discover. It is often painful to witness the discrimination openly displayed towards anyone gay inside or outside of Hollywood. But LGBT people need to see that discrimination which was considered to be totally okay in the 20th century. Mr. von Essen is the kind of singing actor who can rivet you to the spot all through his song, while bringing an occasional tear to the most jaded eye. He is an indispensable asset here. As his wife, Lesli Margherita is Ethel Gumm, an untiring beast of a stage mother who has her own secret. Broadway legend Karen Mason appears as both Ma Lawlor, the feisty teacher of the young stars, and later as Kay Koverman, right-hand to Louis B. Mayer here played by Stephen DeRosa. Karen Mason has a few opportunities to shine in both roles.
Of course, there are all the young hopefuls who are also at MGM Studios at the time. The already famous Shirley Temple played here by an astonishingly polished Violet Tinnirello, Beauties Lana Turner and Deanna Durbin (Clara Cox and Christina Maxwell) exist mostly as sex interests for the apparently voracious and indefatigable Joe Yule, who became Mickey Rooney. Michael Wartella played the young Rooney with boundless energy and dancing to take your breath away. Did he just jump like twenty feet in the air and land? Twice? Indeed, the MGM kids broke into an astonishing tap dance number in the classroom using desks to dance on and to leap into the air. And this wasn’t the only breathtaking tap dance number in the show. Roger Edens, played by the fine Colin Hanlon, another underappreciated gay talent at MGM, appeared to groom Judy Garland to stardom, encouraging her along the way.
The scenes leading up to the making of the film The Wizard of Oz were almost painful. Louis B. Mayer was continually shown to be unimaginative and contrary to even the best advice. He fought the film until Walt Disney’s Snow White became a hit. Mayer finally, after many false starts, put Garland in the role of the little girl, and followed the plot of the famed children’s book upon which the film is based.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz has so much to recommend it, how can one even think of anything to criticize? But there may be a reason to bring this up. Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz is just about non-stop action from song to song to thrilling tap-dancing numbers with little dialogue. There’s really no reflection time to be had. Some might find Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz too exciting, too much for their comfort or constitution, so be forewarned.
Paper Mill Playhouse is in Millburn, New Jersey, with easy parking close to the theatre. Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz is scheduled to continue until October 27, 2019. For times, information, and to purchase tickets, visit www.papermill.org . Next up will be Cinderella, Unmasked, Sister Act, and The Wanderer to complete their 2019-2020 Season.