Flat Rock Playhouse's world premiere of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz does what all good theatre does: transports, uplifts, and delights. The production is not only a showcase of fine talents, but highlights the importance of our state theatre at the national level, as this work-in-progress may well find its way to the yellow brick of Broadway.
Mark Acito's biographical book on the life of the young Frances Gumm (Judy Garland), who is eventually discovered by the entertainment moguls at MGM and cast in the lead of The Wizard of Oz, gives much food for thought. The themes central to Judy Garland's life resonate through the songs she embraced, and this show's concept, by Tina Marie Casamento Libby, uses 30 of them. They underscore the family history of conflict, striving against all odds, upheaval in search of fame, and eventual triumph. David Libby's music arrangements have the punch of modern-day musical theatre; and the choreography by Jeff Whiting, smartly conceived, was beautifully executed by a cast that could really dance. With all the children cast in the production, the cuteness factor was off the charts.
Central to the story of Garland's life was the loss of her beloved father, first through separation, then death. This theme was beautifully and poignantly recreated by Ben Crawford as Frank Gumm. With handsome looks and a magnificent voice to match, he was captivating in each scene, especially in the title song, "Chasing Rainbows," a song of frustration and despair which is the perfect set up to the iconic "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz, which ends the show. Judy is portrayed by Ruby Rakos, a gifted singer based in New Jersey, whose voice has an uncanny resemblance to Garland's own timbre and power. Judy's life in Hollywood was surrounded by the gods and goddesses of the silver screen, and we meet many of them through music in the show, among them Clark Gable ("Dear Mr. Gable") and Shirley Temple ("Happy Little Ditty"). Michael Wartella, a dead-ringer for Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney), channeled expertly Rooney's high energy persona and sweet charm. Claire Griffin, singing as the classically-trained Edna Mae (Deanna Durbin) in contrast to Garland's jazz-inspired style, was a show stopper. Janet Dickinson was hilarious as the schoolmarm Ma Lawlor, but also doubled effectively as L.B. Mayer's assistant.
With so much music embedded in the show, one gets the sense that this is a biographical revue, and with 15 dizzying scene and set changes, a scenario just gets introduced before it's on to the next, as though the development of those scenarios was left on the cutting room floor.
One of the challenges at the Flat Rock Playhouse is the size of the stage, which is rather small. The skill with which this was handled through the use of sliding screens, moving platforms, and projections of scenery makes one forget that stage size potentially could have been an issue.
Alternatively, sound amplification was a serious issue; it seemed calibrated to the hard-of-hearing. The result of the volume being cranked too high was sheer distortion when singers and instrumentalists were letting loose.
This production is well worth seeing and will leave you reaching for those old Garland albums. As an added bonus, the grounds of the Playhouse are beautifully decorated for Christmas with trees and holiday lights, making an evening show a particularly festive occasion.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz continues through Saturday, December 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.