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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Chasing Rainbows' was born here

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in the Flat Rock Playhouse production of ‘Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz.’ PHOTO BY JON GRAHAM Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in the Flat Rock Playhouse production of ‘Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz.’ PHOTO BY JON GRAHAM

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz opens with a brief glimpse of the end, which is a good thing. The road to Oz is mighty hard for Judy Garland and company. It’s good to know ahead of time that she makes it.

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Of course, it might ordinarily be a challenge to tell a story where the ending is universally known. Unless you’re in the Judy Garland fan club — and those are still active, by the way — Chasing Rainbows has enough revelations to keep us engaged. More than engaged, in fact, it packs enough music, drama and comedy to entertain and delight the audience.
Written by Marc Acito based on the story conceived by actress, teacher and director Tina Marie Casamento Libby, Chasing Rainbows is the world premiere musical story of Frances Ethel Gumm and her journey to stardom from toddler to age 16.
The first development show at the Playhouse since the Vincent Marini era, Chasing Rainbows is the story leading up to the story everyone knows. We get to follow the story on another level from here — the effort by four production teams to bring the show to Broadway.
Repackaging and repurposing 31 songs from the ‘30s, arranger David Libby and music director Alex Shields have put together a score that swings, sways and at times saddens. The songs are fun and moving. As director and choreographer, Jeff Whiting seems to have the show in tip-top form already. The producers say it goes next to months of tweaking in New York City before it opens next September at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn. Wherever it plays — on Broadway, a national tour or a regional theater — the playbill will always credit Flat Rock Playhouse as the world premiere stage. If you don’t go see it, you won’t be able to say you were present at the beginning.

* * * *

Frances Gumm was born to sing. At 2½, she sang “Jingle Bells” on the stage of her father’s movie theater over and over until he walked up to carry her off.
The Great Depression and a scandal in their small town in Minnesota forces the family to move west to California, where her mother and father book Baby Gumm and two older sisters onto every vaudeville stage that will have them. They catch a break when Baby Gumm guest stars in a George Jessel show at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. It’s Jessel who is credited with changing her name from the unHollywood-sounding Frances Gumm to Judy Garland. As a 13-year-old her talent and big voice can’t be denied. She wins a movie contract with MGM, beginning a relationship with the studio inhabitants who fight for her and those who want to remake her.
She’s going to be a star, her mother says, “as soon as she gets out of the ugly duckling phase.” “Quack quack,” Judy responds.
Her pug nose, chubby legs and “fire hydrant” figure don’t endear her to studio owner Louis B. Mayer, who just wants his own Shirley Temple to equal the success of a rival Hollywood studio.
“Obviously, she has to lose weight,” a producer says.
“I’ll start by shedding my self-confidence,” she quips.

* * * *

The story needs all the wisecracks and humor it can muster because the road to Oz is paved with anything but happy yellow brick. Judy is emotionally whipsawed between a close relationship with her father, her guiding light and emotional mainstay, and her mother, who is hard-driving for success, too, but not always warm. Her father (played with sensitivity and grace by Ben Crawford) is right many times over when he reminds his youngest daughter that you gotta have rain to get a rainbow.
Mayer’s assistant, Kay Koverman (played with crisp spirit by Janet Dickinson), a young Mickey Rooney (the thousand-watt Michael Wartella) and studio music director Roger Edens (Michael McCorry Rose) are the advocates who make sure that Mayer truly hears and appreciates his newly signed singer-actress.
When Koverman pitches the Wizard of Oz, a popular children’s book of the day, Mayer recoils.
“A little girl leaves home and kills the first person she sees,” he says. “She then hooks up with three other friends to kill again.”
He grudgingly agrees to turn the book into a movie and even more grudgingly accepts Garland in the lead as Dorothy. But even that is not the balloon ride home we’re waiting for. Cut “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz? The studio considered it, according to this script. You can guess what happens in the critical moment where Judy Garland has to save it. It takes a sometimes troubled but spirited 16-year-old girl to reveal the true meaning of Chasing Rainbows in a moving finale.
No one will exit the theater without a profound appreciation for Ruby Rakos, the amazing 19-year-old who gives us a Dorothy who is by turns vulnerable, sassy and wise. Backed by a strong ensemble of New York actors and local kids, the musical is a holiday season treat. It will leave the audience with a new appreciation for the real life stories that led to an amazing performance by a little girl with a big voice that has touched millions of children for generations.

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz runs through Dec. 19 at the Flat Rock Playhouse. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling the Playhouse Box Office at 828-693-0731 or visiting