Fans of Judy Garland are getting a double dose of the legendary movie star this season. First, there was “Judy,” the indie hit with an uncanny portrayal of Garland by Renée Zellweger. The movie focuses on Judy later in life, during a stint in London, where she continued to struggle with pills, missed her children, and was unpredictable in her ability to perform as a result. Garland, at 47, died of an accidental drug overdose 50 years ago in 1969.
“Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz at Paper Mill Playhouse” focuses on a time long before Garland became a star. In fact, she wasn’t even Judy Garland. We meet a young Frances Gumm, early on referred to as “Baby,” the youngest of three girls, but the one destined for Hollywood.
Ruby Rakos (of Broadway’s Billy Elliott fame) plays the lead as a teenaged Judy and her incredible, soaring vocals are perfectly matched to legendary songs as “Over the Rainbow,” “You Made Me Love You,” and “Everybody Sing.”
“Chasing Rainbows” takes us through Garland’s early career from vaudeville baby to MGM teen star in the making and we learn just how difficult the road to Oz was. We also discover the bond Garland had with her father, who died when she was 12, and how the journey to stardom came at a price, from the introduction to prescription diet pills and the pressures she faced from both her mother and Louis B. Mayer, played ably by Stephen DeRosa. Karen Mason gives a standout performance in dual roles — the comedic Ma Lawlor, teacher to child actors at the studio and as Kay Koverman, the super-smart secretary to Louis B. Mayer who saw Garland’s potential.
Rakos, as “the little girl with the big voice,” brings humor and depth to this poignant, coming-of-age tale that Garland’s own daughter Liza Minnelli has lauded. The show, conceived by Tina Marie Casamento, a member of the theater faculty at New Jersey’s Rider University, received unprecedented support from the Garland Estate for the production, and as a result, was able to include so many of the songs, recorded by or associated with Judy Garland.