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“Chasing Rainbows”

Goodspeed Opera House

 

Goodspeed Opera House’s new production, “Chasing Rainbows,” is a show that could have some major things going against it.  The plot of the show, with a book by Marc Acito, as conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby, is basically the early life and career of Judy Garland, from her performing as a part of the Gumm Sisters, right up until the filming of “The Wizard of Oz.”  Of course, Judy Garland is one of the most singular and iconic performers that has ever lived, so any new musical about her faces the inherent problem that no actress cast in the role of Judy can possibly be as good as the original.

That said, Goodspeed Opera House has been very lucky to have found Ruby Rakos, who, while not doing an impersonation of Garland, has found her own way of playing the part.  This young performer has a thrilling voice, and resembles Judy quite a bit, but what really makes Ruby Rakos something special is that she has her own inner glow of talent and star quality that positively radiates through the theatre.  Consequently, with the right “Judy” at the center of the show, the musical “Chasing Rainbows” proves to work very well.  And while not everything about the show is always quite at the same high level as its young star, “Chasing Rainbows” is still quite entertaining, with a strong cast, and can most definitely be recommended.

Nicely told in flashback, “Chasing Rainbows” opens with Judy being fitted for wig and costumes for “The Wizard of Oz,” and then goes back to when her parents first put her onstage, when she was known as Frances Gumm.  Kevin Earley plays Judy’s father Frank, and it must be said that he is extraordinarily talented, with a powerful voice of his own.  Indeed, he puts over such songs as “You Made Me Love You” and, especially, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” superbly.  Similarly, Sally Wilfert is also good as Judy’s mother Ethel, and, though the plot can sometimes get a little tangled up with details about Frank and Ethel’s marriage, “Chasing Rainbows” always has the wise sense to put the emphasize on Judy and fill the show with enjoyable numbers, which definitely helps to maintain this musical’s buoyancy.

Other assets in this show include Michael Wartella, who plays Mickey Rooney in the musical.  Like Ruby Rakos as Judy, Wartella keeps from trying for an exact replica of the original performer and, instead, captures the spirit, humor, and song and dance qualities that Rooney was known for.  There is an especially zesty number in a school room, to the song “Shooting High,” that shows the bond that Judy and Mickey ignited when they first teamed up.  In other roles, Michael McCormick is a funny L. B. Mayer, and Karen Mason positively shines as Mayer’s secretary (and even manages to delightfully incorporate songs from “The Wizard of Oz” into unexpected places in the show).

And then there is Ruby Rakos, as Judy Garland.  This young actress’s ability to personify the heart of the original Judy cannot be overstated.  Indeed Rakos is often quite astonishing in the role and she also proves to possess an extremely ingratiating and warm manner that wins the audience over instantly.  I will confess that there were moments in the second act of “Chasing Rainbows” where Ruby Rakos was so good that I truly felt like she was Judy.  As stated, it is because of the fact that “Chasing Rainbows” has the right young star in the central role that makes the rest of the show come together so nicely.  Director Tyne Rafaeli and choreographer Chris Baily have certainly kept the pace of “Chasing Rainbows” peppy and lively, yet they still allow for touching moments that can truly pierce the heart.

“Chasing Rainbows” also boasts an attractive physical production, with sparkling work by set designer Kristen Robinson and costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, and Ken Billington positively paints the stage with his inventive lighting design.  Musical director Michael O’Flaherty leads the fine orchestra through dozens of old songs, which the talented cast of “Chasing Rainbows” performs splendidly (the musical adaptation for the show is by David Libby). But it is really Ruby Rakos as Judy, who is most remarkable in this musical, which is how it should be.  Without giving away too much, this young actress even makes “Over the Rainbow” completely her own, which is quite an accomplishment, and she transforms the enjoyable “Chasing Rainbows” into the amazing occasion in which one can truly see a star being born before one’s very eyes.

“Chasing Rainbows” continues performances at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through November 27, 2016.  For tickets, please visit www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.

Photo (L-R): Ruby Rakos, Michael Wartella and Berklea Going

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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