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On The Town … With Chip Deffaa, Nov 2, 2019

Chasing Rainbows an exceptionally appealing cast. This is one of those rare productions where even the smallest roles are vivid. The show itself is not perfect.  There are fixes that need to be made, which I'll address shortly.  

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[avatar user=”Chip Deffaa” size=”thumbnail” align=”left”]Chip Deffaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]I’ve been seeing shows at Paper Mill Playhouse since the 1970s. Their current offering, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, boasts an exceptionally appealing cast. This is one of those rare productions where even the smallest roles are vivid. The show itself is not perfect.  There are fixes that need to be made, which I’ll address shortly.   But there’s a million dollars’ worth of talent on that stage, and some moments that are so wonderfully rewarding, I’d encourage you to buy tickets if you can get them.  The show has a future.

Chasing Rainbows

The cast mixes seasoned pros with newcomers, and there’s a lot to love. Chasing Rainbows tells the story of Judy Garland’s early years–from her birth to her great triumph in The Wizard of Oz–using songs from Garland’s era. The cast is a joy from start to finish. Let’s start with some supporting roles. Karen Mason–every inch a star–is perfect as Louis B. Mayer’s secretary. She’s always had one of the greatest voices around. She’s a top-tier cabaret artist.

Karen Mason

And I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her in starring roles on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard (first-rate–she made me cry), Mama Mia (a very popular musical, if not among my favorites), Wonderland (sheer drek—her brilliance was wasted), and at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Gypsy (one of the greatest shows in the musical-theater canon, and she was up to its challenges). Whether in a good show or a bad show, that silvery voice of hers is always a joy to hear, and she performs with authority. I wish there was more for her to do in Chasing Rainbows–someone really ought to be writing starring roles in musicals for her–but they’re lucky to have her in this one. And she makes every moment on stage count.

Max von Essen, another highly respected artist, is wisely cast as Judy Garland’s father. That beautiful, sensitive tenor voice of his is put to good use, It’s always a pleasure to see and hear him on stage.  (And I might add, he’s just released a new album of standards, which should win him more fans).   Stephen DeRosa (whom many will remember for his terrific characterization of Eddie Cantor in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is a treat as Louis B. Mayer. These are well-known theater people, taking the stage with flair in supporting roles.  And I can’t leave out Kevin B. McGlynn as George Jessel.

And there are younger artists who make their moments count, too–like Sophie Knapp as a very little “Baby Gumm” and Violet Tinnirello as a relentlessly, insufferably cute Shirley Temple.  Good fun!

Michael Wartella — new to me, and a total joy to watch — portrays Mickey Rooney like a relative.  I wish Mickey were still alive to witness this dazzling evocation of him. I wish Mickey’s widow, Jan Rooney, could see the show, too; someone ought to invite her. (I’ve written her myself to let her know how much I enjoyed Michael Wartella’s portrayal of the Mick.)  I remember Mickey telling me bitterly one time, late in his career, that he sometimes felt like life had passed him by, that his fans had all forgotten him, deserted him.   But Wartella captures young Mickey Rooney’s brash energy endearingly–singing, chatting, drumming, tap-dancing with brio; it’s an unforgettable turn.  The producers could not have found a better Mickey Rooney.  I’ll be looking forward to his future work.

Chasing Rainbows

And finally–playing with strength, verve, and confidence the demanding key role, that of Judy Garland–there’s Ruby Rakos. She is not exactly an unknown. Some will remember her good work in Billy Elliot on Broadway, for example. But this really  is a breakout role for her. And she makes the most of the opportunity. (I’m glad I had a chance after the show  to briefly tell her–and also her mom, Katie Kearns–how much I’d enjoyed her work.)   So It’s a very well-cast production, strong down even to the smallest supporting roles.  And that’s rare.

Ruby Raykos as Judy Garland

The show itself needs work if it’s to eventually make it to Broadway–as I hope will be the case.   But there is so much that is already just right. And so much I enjoyed greatly (thank you, director/choreographer Denis Jones for the new tap-dancing number I’ve seen in a long time)–I just wanted to recommend this show now. And, I might add,  it also added to the fun to see so many talented people in the audience, enjoying the show–from cabaret-king Michael Feinstein; to Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft ; to the hottest young singer in the nightclubs today, Seth Sikes (who’s often paid tribute to Garland in his nightclub appearances).  I’m glad I got to go.

But there are problems with the book, song choices, and arrangements that need to be addressed if the show is to reach its full potential.  .The opening scenes won me over entirely. (I watched the first few scenes feeling like I was watching an unqualified hit; but then problems began dropping up.)

At the start, the Gumm sisters–the youngest of the sisters, Baby Frances Gumm,  will later use “Judy Garland” as her stage name–are performing in small-time vaudeville, with dreams of success in Hollywood.  And the first two numbers, “Shooting High” and “Going Hollywood” help get the show off to a rousing start.   I was just beaming, soaking up the old-school showbiz razzle-dazzle.

Mark Acito’s libretto wisely mixes the optimism of youth with hints and foreshadowings of trouble.  The music has been adapted by David Libby, who’s done the arrangements and  provided some additional new music.  The show has been conceived by Tina Marie Casamento, who has also provided some additional new lyrics for pre-existing songs.

The show starts off so well, it feels–in the beginning–like an surefire hit.  And some of the numbers, some of the scenes are just perfect.  But the songs the creative team have chosen are of wildly varied quality.  Some of the weaker period songs could be dropped, and replaced by better period songs from Garland’s career.

And a musical, ideally, needs to build to a really strong close of the first act, and then an even stronger close of the second act.  This show’s first act closes with “Everybody Sing.”  That’s a second-rate song, not interesting enough melodically or lyrically  to  do the job being asked of it.  The act deserves a stronger close.   (I know the Garland canon well; she’s always been one of my all-time favorites; I own videotapes of Garland’s  films, including Everybody Sing, and zillions of her recordings.

The song “Everybody Sings”–the undistinguished title number from a cute but lesser Garland movie,  did not interest Garland  enough for her  to keep it in her repertoire.  And she was an excellent judge of material.)  I wish they could find a stronger ending for Act One   But I’d overlook that imperfection  if the show as a whole built to a terrifically strong conclusion.  Alas, it doesn’t.

I loved much of the show, watching it; but I felt a bit let down by the ending,  And how you end a show will affect word-of-mouth. If a show ends really well, the audience leaves the show raving about it.  If a show is generally good but ends disappointingly, the audience leaves the theater in a somewhat more subdued mood.   I like much of Chasing Rainbows a lot.  But it needs to build to a stronger payoff.  So that everyone leaves the theater feeling the same sort of “Wow!” I felt watching the show’s best scenes.

One of the greatest numbers in the Garland repertoire is “You Made Me love You.”  (It was originally introduced by Al Jolson, as were a number of other songs Garland loved;  she was a huge admirer of Jolson and repeatedly scored successes with songs he’d first made famous, putting her own stamp on the material.)  Roger Edens adapted the song for Garland, and her performance of it was sheer perfection.   It is frustrating, in this production, to have her sing the introduction that Edens crafted for her (“Dear Mr. Gable, I am writing this to you…”) and then turn the song over to others.  Let us hear her sing the whole song just as Garland did it, with all of the patter that made audiences takes her to their hearts.   When she begins singing this signature number, the show is making an implied promise to the audience that they are going to hear an evocation of one of Garland’s most memorable performance.  But the song—too quickly—is handed off to others.

The Chasing Rainbows creative team may think they’re making the moment bigger by having several people sing the song.  But by not letting us see Judy Garland in one her defining performances, they’re actually making the moment smaller.  Let her sing the whole number–or at least more of the number than we’re hearing at present, if you want to eventually  bring in the others.  But right now, it’s frustrating,  And a chance to really evoke the Garland magic—to show us why audiences so thoroughly took to her–is missed.

The arrangements and orchestrations in this production, too often, feel bland and generic. They’re functional–which may be fine for an early regional tryout of a show.  But they don’t  conjure up vividly enough the period or of Garland.  And first-rate arrangements and orchestrations can add so much to a show.  Go  see the musical Chicago–so brilliantly arranged and orchestrated by the late  Ralph Burns.   The band will win you over–masterfully establishing the period and the whole feel of the show–even before the first words of any song are sung. Chasing Rainbows starts in the late 1920s, and runs through the 1930s.  More can–and should–be done to evoke the era.  And to evoke Garland.

It’s not my intent to be harsh.  There is so much that is right with this show already, I’d like to see it reach its maximum potential–so it can eventually have maximum impact on Broadway and beyond.  There’s a lot to love at present.  And the cast is excellent. It’s one of the most enjoyable casts I’ve seen at Paper Mill.  (I’d see it it again if I could!  But some health issues make that impossible right now.)   It’s a good show, but–with a little more work–the show could be—and should be–so much more.

I’d like  to see the show reach its full potential—so it can find a home on Broadway, have touring and regional, and community-theater productions.  There are some terrific roles here.  (And if the producers ever are looking for another actress to portray young Judy Garland in a production somewhere, Emily Victoria  Bordonaro would be perfect.  And Michael Townsend Wright does a spot-on impression of George Jessel in his club act; he’s the best Jessel around, if they ever need another actor to play that particular role.)  And there are already  some terrific songs.

But there’s never been a greater female entertainer than Garland.  She deserves a great—not just good, or even very good—show.

* * *

If the stage musical Chasing Rainbows focuses on the early years of Judy Garland—from her childhood up through the making of The Wizard of Oz.  It is often upbeat and optimistic.  Its best moments left me feeling exhilarated.

The new motion picture Judy (starring Rennee Zellweger) focuses on the last year of Garland’s life.  Based on the hit stage play End of the Rainbow (by Peter Quilter), it is much darker and sadder than Chasing Rainbows. It’s a portrait of an artist who’s pretty much at the end of her rope.  Her voice is past its peak; her marriages have failed; she is broke; she is unreliable; she’s addicted to pills..  It is hard  for her to simply go on with life.  But she is still capable of creating magic on stage.

Judy logo

This film’s best moments moved me to tears.  (And it is not often that a motion picture can do that. But tears were streaming down my face as film worked its way towards its conclusion.)   It is very well done.  Zellweger will probably win an Oscar for her acting.  And she deserves it.  Director Rupert Goold and writer Tom Edge have done Oscar-worthy  work, too.  And the film, wisely, makes effective use of Garland’s own arrangements.  And that adds drama and authenticity.  (It’s also obvious to me that Zellweger has studied the “live” recordings of Garland in that last London run.  I’ve savored those recordings—as harrowing as some moments are—since I was a teen.  But Zellweger has studied them carefully.  And sometimes she gets small details perfectly—that little catch in the voice Garland had, for example, when she mentioned her last husband, Mickey Deans, in song.)

I must confess, I was not looking forward to this film.  I have been a lifelong Garland devotee.  I was appalled when I heard that Zellweger intended to do her own singing for the picture.  I’ve very much   liked Zellwger’s work on stage and screen.  She is a superb actress.  But she is nowhere near the singer Garland was.  I hope someday someone will make a motion picture based on Garland’s life using her own recordings on the soundtrack.   (Someone who only knew Garland from this film would have no idea why she was so acclaimed an artist.)

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland

But Zellweger is such a gifted actress—she is so compelling  in the “book scenes” of the film—capturing Garland’s insecurities, moodiness, charm, edge, and hint of desperation—that the songs, for the most part, work.  No, she does not have that gorgeous Garland sound; her timbre is more ordinary.  And she does not have the electricity Garland had.   She does not have Garland’s instincts for making  every gesture or  movement–the raising of an arm,  or the arching of  the back—perfectly fit the moment.

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland

But her acting is so strong, it almost doesn’t matter that her singing is maybe, at best, 60% of Garland’s.  She makes us buy the whole package.  And feel for her.  And when she shows up late at a performance and loses her audience, and fans turn on her, it is compelling.  And tragic.  And unforgettable.  And the whole film hangs together brilliantly.  From first scene to last, it hurtles along to and ending that is as powerful as it is inevitable.

There are some other very fine performances in the film, too—notably Rufus Sewell as Sid Luft, Richard Cordery as Louis B. Mayer.  Not every performance is memorable.  (Surely they could have found a better Liza.)  But the film held me from beginning to end.  And I look forward to seeing it again.  I wouldn’t buy a soundtrack album for this film; there are superb Garland albums to listen to, beginning with her legendary  “Carnegie Hall Concert” album.  But as a film—as a portrait of anguished artist in her final year—it is first-rate.

* * *

Judy Garland—who seems to be everywhere, of late–plays  a significant role  in the new book Stages: A Theater Memoir  by Albert Poland.  I want to talk about that book a bit.  For me, it’s the most interest show-business memoir to come along in years–one of my all-time favorite show-business memoirs.   And I choose my words carefully.

Stages by Albert Poland

I might add, I read everything I can, pertaining to show-business; always have.  I’m sure I was the only boy in my grade school who regularly read “Variety,” and did  reports on books like Show Biz: From Vaude to Video.

First let me tell you who Albert Poland is.  As a general manager or producer, he’s helped bring us more than 40 shows, including memorable productions of Present Laughter, The Price, The Best Man, One Mo’ Time, Stupid Kids, Glengarry Glen Ross, Tommy Tune, Now is the Time…, and Long Day’s Journey into Night. When I was first becoming aware that there was an Off-Broadway, and an Off-Off Broadway, Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman co-authored/edited The Off-Off Broadway Book, which I devoured. The book insisted that attention must be paid to writers then working in tiny theaters, Off-Off-Broadway. The book gathered plays they’d written, along with bios of them, and commentary on the overall scene.  And many of the then-unknown writers that Albert Poland was so whole-heartedly championing (like Terrence McNally, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, A.R. Gurney, Sam Shephard) went on to become major writers of their generation. Young Albert Poland had the eye to recognize their talents early on; he was more aware of the rising talents than some of the major reviewers of the day. I learned from Poland’s book in my youth.  And I bought a copy of his new book as soon as it came out.

Albert Poland with Steve Martin

Albert Poland  is not a household name.  But he knows the New York theater world inside-out.  And this book captures vividly the characters of the theater world—from Off-Off-Broadway, to Off-Broadway, to Broadway.  We see Sam Shepherd punching a fellow in the stomach so hard, at an opening-night party, that he ruptures  a vein in the poor fellow’s stomach.  (And later, Shepherd does not even remember the  incident.)  And David Merrick commanding Broadway until felled by a cocaine-induced stroke.  We see unknown artists mounting their first shows on a dime, and making their reputations.   And a production of “Rain” in which the rain-effects wind up soaking the reviewers.  And Poland running backstage, in one small theater, to  grab  the chairs from the actors’ dressing room, to accommodate more audience-members in the house.  (I had to do that myself with one show. I know that good feeling!)  And we see very famous artists (like Yoko Ono) getting all of the press coverage in the world but failing to sell out a tiny Off-Off-Broadway house. (When she did her show New York Rock,, you would have assumed—from all of the press coverage—that it was the biggest hit in the world.  But more people apparently liked reading about Yoko than actually seeing her work.)  We see Uta Hagen, rehearsing for her terrific appearance in the play Mrs. Klein, being told she could not smoke her cigarettes in the theater.  Hagen said if there were no cigarettes, there would be Hagen; and no one dared question her again,.    We watch sexual boundaries being  expanded  on fringe stages, with establishment-types dismissing the newer, franker, more erotic shows  as “the sewer,” and telling Poland he was working in “the sewer.”  But audiences flocking to see the shows.

Albert Poland with Judy Garland

There is a certain sadness to the book, too, as the theater world that Poland  loved so much (and I loved so much) becomes, over time,  increasingly controlled by investors and backers, and corporate types, and less and less driven by passionate, often eccentric—but sometimes visionary—individual artistic characters.  At the end, when Poland decides it’s time for him  to retire, you want to shout, “No!  don’t go!  You’re needed! Now more than ever!”  But you understand his feelings.

It is a very good book.  (And most show-business memoirs disappoint me.  Many  of the most interesting performers have written surprisingly glib, superficial, unrevealing memoirs—think of Bette Davis’ This ‘N That or Katherine Hepburn’s modestly titled Me;  I love Davis and Hepburn as actors; but they were sometimes disappointing as story-tellers.)    This is an insider’s book.  And it is honest.  And the stories are well-told.  And you can learn a lot from it, about how theater is made.

Oh!  And I don’t want to forget the role Judy Garland played in Poland’s development.  He was just another kid growing up in the Midwest when Garland’s film A Star is Born opened.  He took a bus by himself to see it—the first time he’d gone to a movie on his own, without his family.  And he was enthralled.  He sat through that long, original release two-and-a-half times, completely under Garland’s spell.     By the time he got back home, his parents—worried that he was “missing”—had called the police.  “But it was too late,” Poland writes succinctly (and perfectly).  “I had escaped.”

He was just 13.  He managed, one night, to actually reach Judy Garland by phone.  (His parents were furious when they later found out; he had made a call long-distance without permission.)  But he got to speak with her, and cajole her into sending him a letter officially authorizing him to run a fan club in her honor.  At that point, he and two friends were the only members.  But he had initiative.  The club he started grew  to have thousands of members, and it enabled  him to eventually meet her in person.  (Already we are getting a sense of Albert Poland as a person, even as a teenager.)

I could spend the whole day sharing stories from this book.  But I don’t want to deprive you of the joy of discovering favorite stories of your own in this book.  At the end, you’ll thank Albert Poland for writing it.  And for letting you into his world.   Someday, I hope to meet him in person and get him to autograph my copy.  And maybe also tell me that Bea Lillie-related story he alludes to at one point  but says he can’t actually include in the book because it’s unprintable.  I’d love to hear it!

* * *

Speaking of show-business memoirs, David Cassidy’s autobiography, C’Mon Get Happy–which I ghost-wrote at his request–is coming out as an E-book in December. It’s available for pre-order (on Amazon)  now. I’ve written a new afterword for this edition, to touch on David’s final years and offer a few reflections. The book will be 250 pages, and will include photos of David taken by Henry Diltz and myself. David’s high-spirited stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad.

C’Mon Get Happy

David started as a typical New Jersey kid, became a huge teen idol via “The Partridge Family” TV show, hit records, and concerts. By his early 20s, he was actually–for a while–the highest-paid single concert artist in the world, quickly selling out 60,000-seat stadiums. And there were fans and groupies waiting for him wherever he went. He made millions, lost every penny, started over again. And again…

This book (edited well by Karen Kelly) became a surprise best-seller, and was even turned into a TV movie–with a remarkably uncharismatic actor portraying the ever-charismatic David.  (David projected a tremendous sexuality on stage; the poor actor portraying him the film, alas,  had none of that.)

For every lively story David chose to share in this book, he had 10 more outrageous ones he told me privately which I’ll take to the grave with me.  I might add, David was certain from the first day we began work on the book that it was going to be big–he could envision himself discussing it on “Oprah.” I NEVER expected the book to do well. (I thought he was largely forgotten.) But from the moment the book was released, I began hearing from fans of David. And when I got the phone call that NBC was sending a camera crew to my home here in New Jersey so that Matt Lauer could interview me about David, I realized there was still interest in him. And David wound up talking about the book on “Oprah” and all of the other shows, just as he’d predicted to me..

David had been hurt a lot in his life, and the wounds never really healed. Offstage, he was often unhappy. He was often unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There was a kind of “wounded bird” quality to him.  But he sure knew how to tell a good tale.   And that book—which we knocked off very quickly (David said, “I don’t want it to be good; I want it to be fast!”)—continues to live.  And I continue to hear from fans—many of whom have new stories to share with me,    David would be glad to know that this memoir (with the blessings of his estate) is being reissued now, and with a new afterword. Like so many of us, he welcomed attention.

* * *

Finally, I want to call attention to the fact that Westchester Broadway theater is presenting An American in Paris  (with a score by the Gershwins and book by Craig Lucas)  through November 24th.  Mounted  by one of Westchester Broadway’s most reliable  director/choreographers, Richard Stafford, this is an unusually  big production—24 actors in the company, plus 10 musicians (doubling on oboe, English horn, piccolo, etc., so it sometimes sound like even more) under the direction of conductor Ryan Edward Wise   And strikingly costumed by Keith Nielsen.

An American in Paris

I don’t know how Westchester Broadway does it, because they offer dinner and show for a fraction of the cost of as show in New York.  (The food—always satisfying–also seems  to have been upgraded of late.)  And a lot of work goes into a show as dance-heavy as this one.

The score includes not only many of the Gershwins’ best-loved popular songs (“The Man I Love,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” “S’wonderful,” “Liza,” “I Got Rhythm”), it also includes such serious Gershwin pieces as “Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,”  “Second Rhapsody,” and of course, “An American in Paris.”  The cast includes Brandon Haagenson, Deannna Doyle, Lauren Sprague, Jonathan Young, Erika Amato, and Tommaso Antico.  And Lucas’ book has a nicely contemporary feel; the characters are more self-reflective than in the famed original MGM motion picture. .

This musical is a cut above most stage musicals that have been built around pre-existing songs.  The Gershwins were, of course,  in the very top tier of songwriters.  And Craig Lucas has fashioned a polished script.

There’s an audience for this kind of show, and I’m glad Westchester has committed to a long, two-month run.  I can’t comment as thoroughly today as I usually would, because health problems interfered with my own enjoyment of the show the night I attended. (We’re all human.)   But I’ve always liked this show and am glad Westchester is presenting it.

Chip Deffaa

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