by Adam Cohen
As you enter Paper Mill Playhouse for Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a scrim with MGM movie posters and a black and white film plays. As the musical begins, the scrim rises and we see Judy (Ruby Rakos) in front of a mirror stepping into the famous ruby slippers, singing snippets of “Over the Rainbow.”
Chasing Rainbows is a hybrid-jukebox musical crammed with classic songs from “The Wizard of Oz” and original tunes. There’s a lot jammed in despite the PostIt note sketchbook by Marc Acito. Musically fileting a life as interesting as Garland’s into terse scenes and biographic wisps is bittersweet. Denis Jones direction and choreography is snappy with ample limber and snazzy dancing by the ensemble. Numbers like “All Ma’s Children” have the punch and panache of MGM’s musicals. And the show is filled with glorious singing and Broadway veterans that are always fun to watch and a great Paper Mill debut in Ruby Rakos.
Rakos has a wonderful voice – she brings a steely maturity to singing with a wide range and impressive emotion. Her portrayal is full of pluck and quiet determination. She’s surrounded with the amazing Lesli Margherita as her mom Ethel and Max Von Essen as dad Frank. Karen Mason handles two key roles with grace – Louis B. Mayer’s influential secretary who recognizes Judy’s talent. Michael Wartella makes for an impish Mickey Rooney.
Von Essen is solid, loving and endearing towards Rakos. They have some nifty duets together including “Got a Pair of New Shoes” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Margherita brings a realistic maternal verve to Ethel and one always longs for her to have more to do within any production.
As always, Paper Mill’s production is aptly professional. Alexander Dodge’s set evokes old Hollywood glamour, depression era grit, and the wonder of movie making. Linda Cho offers a wide range of beautiful and crafty costumes.
The production is absolutely entertaining, often fun to look at and beautifully sung. It successfully evokes the determined, rocky path of Garland to fame while keeping a wise eye on her family. One of her sister’s aspires to be a waitress because she’ll never starve. Jones, his astute casting – especially Rakos bring steely nuance and tenderness to this biography.
Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz at Paper Mill Playhouse thru October 27