Before the Rainbow

A premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse explores the evolution of an icon, with 19-year-old Ruby Rakos in the lead role as Judy Garland.

A premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse explores the evolution of an icon, with 19-year-old Ruby Rakos in the lead role as Judy Garland.

Everyone likes a juicy backstory. Add catchy tunes, a young cast, and a beloved Hollywood icon, and the show becomes a world premiere.

Flat Rock Playhouse has been tapped for just such an honor with the musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, inspired by the early life of Judy Garland — before she was swept into super-stardom, scandal, and deadly addiction.

“It’s about an underdog, this immensely talented underdog, and how she beat the odds and became one of the greatest stars ever,” says Lisa K. Bryant, the playhouse’s artistic director.

The beloved brown-eyed Garland, though gifted with an emotionally operatic voice and a signature charisma, faced tremendous obstacles before her breakout role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Only a year younger than Lana Turner, she was inevitably compared to her fellow MGM starlet. Unlike Turner, Garland was under five feet all, considered plump, and nicknamed a “little hunchback” by studio head Louis B. Mayer.

Playing girl-next-door roles opposite Mickey Rooney, she found fame, but was still required to wear caps on her teeth and a rubber disc to remold her nose. Constantly mocked for being overweight, she was put on a diet that was enforced on and off set by studio spies.

By age 16, Garland was aging out of her breezy musical romps with Rooney — but wasn’t considered attractive enough to pull off a leading-lady role.

Executives wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, and Deanna Durbin was the next choice. Neither young actor was available, and Garland, considered a dowdy, unsuitable substitute, was eventually cast.

“They originally had her Shirley Templed-out,” Bryant says. “They had her in a blond curly wig and pink dresses. But Judy Garland, as this young girl on set … was instrumental in saying, ‘No. I know this girl. She’s not blond. She’s not in pretty pink dresses. She’s a farm girl. And she dreams of something bigger, something better, and something exciting on the other side of the rainbow.’”

The chance to stage the premiere evolved when Bryant, on talent-scouting trips to New York City, became acquainted with producer Tina Marie Casamento Libby. The two connected.

Libby had been in discussions with other playhouses to further the show’s development, but Flat Rock seemed the best fit for the next phase.

“It has a reputation for great productions, and it had all the DNA for what we needed to do,” says Libby. “We needed a small but professional and excellent regional theater that would be the perfect place to try the show in front of an audience.

“At Flat Rock Playhouse, we can be in a place some distance from New York, where we have the opportunity to do the work in a peaceful and productive environment. Flat Rock already had a youth program that I knew we could utilize to look for the kids’ cast.

“Most importantly,” she adds, “Lisa and I completely hit it off, and I knew she had the heart to understand the story we wanted to tell. … I also love the South. Everything about the area is appealing to me.”

The world-class production team in New York and cast has split the rehearsal schedule between Broadway and North Carolina. A few local adult actors and a crew of about 20 children are in the show. Dorothy is Ruby Rakos, 19, an aspiring New York musical-theater actress who’s played significant roles since childhood.

“I think her soul is in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s,” Libby says. “When I first brought her on the team, I said to her, ‘Do you know that you look and sound like Judy?’”

She didn’t; she was only familiar with the older Judy, the icon of later years. Libby’s dedication to the show is driven, in part, to flesh out another side of Garland.

Like The Wizard of Oz, the new musical, written by Marc Acito (also of New York), is family entertainment. But that’s where the similarities end. Audiences will hear new arrangements of “Over the Rainbow” and songs from the Garland/Rooney repertoire, but the story isn’t fantastical, full of munchkins and flying monkeys. It is a lushly arranged, touching snapshot of a young woman who perseveres with the help of key advocates, including her beloved father, according to Bryant.

“It rounds out her life’s trajectory,” she says. “It’s a beautiful portrayal of a three-dimensional person.”

The world premiere of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz opens November 27 and runs through December 19 at Flat Rock Playhouse. $15-$40. For tickets and show times, see www.flatrockplayhouse.org or call 828-693-0731.

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