Friday, November 6, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

I don’t think anyone will care about how things are in Glocca Morra when they can be in the delightful world of Rainbow Valley as the mythical state of Missitucky bursts forth in this joyful revival of Finian's Rainbow. Certainly the audience won’t want to be any place other than at the St. James Theatre for this first open-ended Broadway revival since the original closed in 1948. It's going be one of the not-to-be-missed shows of the season.

And Kate Baldwin’s performance as Sharon McLonergan (left in photo), a lass newly arrived from Ireland, is not to be missed. I could go again and again just to hear her sing “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow.” When she’s joined by the always appealing Cheyenne Jackson (photo, right), as local boy Woody Mahoney, for “Old Devil Moon” and “If This Isn’t Love,” it’s heaven.

Warren Carlyle directs and choreographs a flawless production -- the dancing alone is a treat. The songs -- music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Yip Harburg -- are timeless, and the book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, proves to be still relevant today. Unlike that other 1947 fantasy hit, Brigadoon, which is enjoying a first-rate run by Blue Hill Troupe at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Finian’s Rainbow mixes satire of racism and capitalism with its good fun in this story about an Irishman, Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton), and his daughter, Sharon, chasing a dream in the American South of the 1940s, bringing with them from the old country a stolen pot of gold that can make wishes come true.

This production has one especially meaningful scene -- when Terri White, as Dottie, sings “Necessity,” a song about wanting to play but needing to work to pay the rent. White gives it all the gusty, bluesy punch it deserves, but for her it has a special meaning. In the summer of 2008 she was evicted from her apartment of 14 years after she broke up with her girlfriend and couldn’t pay the rent. For three months she slept on a friend’s couch or in Washington Square Park. It’s no wonder that having made the long journey back to Broadway, where she had appeared in 1980 with Glenn Close in Barnum, that she smiles from ear to ear at her curtain call.

Another standout performance is given by Alina Faye as Susan Mahoney, Woody’s sister who was born unable to speak and who expresses herself through dance. I also enjoyed Christopher Fitzgerald as Og, the leprechaun whose pot of gold Finian has “borrowed”, and the way he appears and disappears, becoming more human all the time and, of course, singing that famous song “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.”

And I got a real kick out of the scene where the racist Senator Rawkins (David Schramm), who is trying to evict the sharecroppers -- blacks and whites who work harmoniously together -- for failing to pay all of their taxes, is magically turned black (Chuck Cooper taking over), much to his horror at first, until he finds a new talent singing in a gospel quartet. Cooper is a riot. And what a voice!

A musical satirizing racism was unheard of in 1947, as was the original staging that had blacks and whites dancing together for the first time on a Broadway stage. Still, it was a hit that ran for a year and a half.

I saw a charming production of Finian’s Rainbow at the Irish Rep in 2004 that should have moved to Broadway but didn’t. This current effort is an offshoot of the lavishly praised Encores! concert version, which Carlyle directed in March. It features John Lee Beatty’s colorful scenery, which is winningly cartoonish, just right for creating that mythical world. Toni-Leslie James’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting add perfectly to the spell. Conductor Rob Berman provides music supervision and vocal arrangements. Blessedly, the music is not in any way overly amplified, which is unusual for Broadway or even most Off-Broadway shows, for which I always wear earplugs because they are painfully loud.

On a personal note, I was pleased to meet Cheyenne Jackson when my friend Phil Hall and I went backstage after the show. Cheyenne had been in Phil’s group passage many years ago. Phil said he always knew it wouldn’t be for long because Cheyenne was so talented he was just bound to make it big. When we congratulated him on his performance and all the success he has enjoyed he said he was having a great time and was grateful for all that was coming his way.

Tickets for Finian’s Rainbow may be purchased by visiting, by phoning (212) 239-6200 or at the St. James Theatre box office at 246 W. 44th St.

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1 comment:

LMS said...

Wow. Thanks so much for the great review! I do remember when Cheyenne was involved in Passage. It was some years ago. Are there any plans to make a "reunion" of sorts? That would be awesome! Would love to hear them sing again those beautiful hymns.