MILLBURN, NJ - Judy Garland has made an amazing comeback, with both this charming musical at Paper Mill Playhouse and the new film starring Renee Zellweger. It’s also the anniversary of ‘The Wizard of Oz,” a film that never seems to lose its appeal. Garland’s early career is the focus of “Chasing Rainbows, The Road to Oz.”
Ruby Rakos is a sound choice as the young Judy, her less-than-glamorous persona, but with a voice that shakes the rafters. Her delivery of “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow” are memorable.
There’s plenty to enjoy in this fast paced production, brilliantly directed and choreographed by Denis Jones. Max Von Essen as Judy’s father, Frank Gumm, is the one family member who never lets her down. It’s clear in the play that he’s homosexual, at a time when that wasn’t at all accepted. His moments with “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and other favorites shine through.
Then we have Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney, showing Judy the Hollywood ropes in high energy song and dance. “All Ma’s Children” is a winner, with the chorus singing and tapping to drum sticks on top of tables, exuberant and ebullient all the way.
Karen Mason as Kay Koverman, Louis B. Mayer’s assistant, takes the audience on a gleeful turn with new words to the Oz movie song, “If I Only Had a Brain.” She keeps insisting to Mayer that the public will identify with ‘the girl next door,’ not glamorous stars. Stephen DeRosa as Mayer also nails the character, referring to Judy as a hunchback and other derogatory terms.
Much of the music contains segments or melodies from familiar songs, without going through an entire number. The “Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You” is gently handled, with a suave Sean Thompson appearing as ‘The King’ himself.
Of course, the sad reality is knowing how Judy Garland’s life ended at the age of 47, a victim of weight loss pills and other drugs that were forced on her during her formative Hollywood career.
Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, from the Midwest to the Hollywood hills, moves us along, while costumes by Linda Cho reflect both the depression era and the movies’ glitz. Judy’s rebellion at an early costume for Dorothy hits home, as she fights for a simple, farm girl demeanor and setting. And her defense of the lyrics for “Over the Rainbow” is moving. How much of Marc Acito’s book is fact or fiction really doesn’t matter.
“Chasing Rainbows, The Road to Oz” is a sensitive, thoughtful tribute to Garland and the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” The play continues through Oct. 27 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit papermill.org.