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Finian's Rainbow

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

I can't tell you how things are in Glocca Morra, but at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where a glowing, no-frills revival of the 1947 musical Finian's Rainbow just opened, they're looking mighty glorious.

That's not surprising as Finian's Rainbow has a heart as warm and passionate as one could wish for, and a love of humanity that, nearly 60 years after its premiere, can't be suppressed. There are no gimmicks here, only sterling craftsmanship in the book (by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy), music (by Burton Lane), and lyrics (Harburg).

It must be noted that the Irish Rep revival, which is based on a benefit concert the Irish Rep presented last year, is not the full show. You won't hear Robert Russell Bennett's superb orchestrations (the score is played on two pianos, under the musical direction of Mark Hartman and Mark Janus), and the book has been heavily trimmed and adapted by director Charlotte Moore to get the show down to a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes.

While these losses are unfortunate, Moore's adaptation is very good. She captures the show's fragrant essence, and thoroughly squelches claims made in recent years about Finian Rainbow's racist tendencies. (As if the proudly liberal Harburg would ever be associated with such a musical.) Moore's fine work here proves that the show is only dated insofar as American attitudes about racial equality have changed a great deal in the past 57 years.

Because, at its core, that's the subject of Finian's Rainbow: people of different skin colors and nationalities all getting along in the great melting pot of the United States. The show may take place in the fictional state of Missitucky in 1947, but its message remains stirring and applicable today, however fanciful its story may be.

And fanciful it is, with a leprechaun named Og following Irish immigrant Finian McLonergan and his daughter Sharon to the United States, where they plan to bury an enchanted pot of gold near Fort Knox to help it grow. Finian and Sharon get mixed up in a bigoted senator's plot to steal a lucrative tobacco farm from the family that owns it (and hires black sharecroppers), and Sharon gets her wish (accidentally made on the enchanted gold) to give the senator a taste of his own hateful medicine by turning him black.

The play's serious issues are handled with the kind of loving, bright humor that doesn't exist in quite the same way as today's musical comedies. Even this production, with its heavily cut-down libretto, manages to present Finian's Rainbow as the type of socially significant musical comedy that Hairspray aspired to be, but didn't succeed as effortlessly at becoming. The Harburg/Saidy book, while loaded with laughs, is wonderfully moving and beautiful in its careful construction.

Then there's the score, itself a bounty of delights. The first act alone contains such gorgeous classic tunes as "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?", "Look to the Rainbow," "Old Devil Moon," and "Something Sort of Grandish," to name just a few. The second act features a number of reprises, but also includes the foot-stamping gospel number, "The Begat," in which the senator - now black - revels with a traveling singing troupe, and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," Og's hilarious paean to wavering affections.

The cast is likewise exceptional, reuniting Melissa Errico (Sharon) and Malcolm Gets (Og) from the short-lived Broadway Amour, and putting them both to fine use. Errico's shimmering soprano makes Sharon's songs sound lovely, and her "Old Devil Moon" duet with Max von Essen (playing Woody, whose family owns the tobacco farm) is a major highlight. Gets and Freeman are both hilarious; Terri White, as the Maid and one of the Gospeleers, brings the house down at every opportunity; John Sloman is equally effective as the bigoted and later reformed senator; and the ensemble, including Kimberly Dawn Neumann as Woody's mute dancing sister and David Staller as the ubiquitous narrator, is similarly excellent.

Moore deserves a lot of credit for her work, as the concert staging never feels insufficient. The performers interact with the pianists and audience to make the experience a seamlessly theatrical one; Staller's presence and easy manner enhance the feeling of communal storytelling Moore has worked to create; and though James Morgan's sets consist of little more than a painted backdrop and a few benches, it's just what's required (as are Mary Jo Dondlinger's lights and David Toser's costumes).

But it's the show itself, with its lively, moving book and singular score, that provides the best reason to take in this Finian's Rainbow while you can. It's not something sort of grandish - it's about as grand as it gets.

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Irish Repertory Theatre
Finian's Rainbow
Through May 30
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.727.2737