Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 29, 2009
Finian’s Rainbow Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by Yip Harburg. Book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy. Direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music supervision and vocal arrangements by Rob Berman. Original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker.
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair, wig & makeup design by Wendy Parson. Book adaptation by Arthur Perlman. Original adaptation for Encores! by David Ives. Based on the presentation by New York City Center Encores! Starring Jim Norton, Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Guy Davis, Alina Faye, Brian Reddy, David Schramm, Terri White, William Youmans, with Chuck Cooper and Christopher Fitzgerald; Aaron Bantum, Tanya Birl, Christopher Borger, Meggie Cansler, Bernard Dotson, Leslie Donna Flesner, Sara Jean Ford, Taylor Frey, Lisa Gajda, Kearran Giovanni, Tim Hartman, Lauren Lim Jackson, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevin Ligon, Monica L. Patton, Joe Aaron Reid, Devin Richards, Steve Schepis, Rashidra Scott, Brian Sears, Paige Simunovich, James Stovall, Elisa Van Duyne.
I wish that audiences would flock to it, if only so they can be exposed to intelligent political theatre and one of the most gloriously accomplished scores in musical theatre history, and then demand better from today’s composers, lyricists, and librettists.
I wish the producers would be showered with the public praise they deserve for mounting a revival that, by virtue of the size of its cast (35) and its orchestra (24, under Rob Berman’s baton), is of the scale that Broadway should be doing all the time.
I wish that the production itself were as good as it should be.
This is, at its heart, a thrillingly original piece of writing that does what all topical and charged plays should do, but (especially these days) usually don’t: make its points with flair, wit, and color, rather than merely a heavy hand. What seems at first like an oddly whimsical trifle about the Irishman Finian McLonergan and his daughter Sharon coming to America (specifically, Rainbow Valley, Missitucky) to make their fortune with the help of crock of gold stolen from the leprechaun Og, doesn’t take long to become a serious study of prejudice’s roots, effects, and remedies.
Sharon wishes that bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins, who’s threatening and terrorizing Rainbow Valley’s sharecroppers, would get a taste of own medicine. That he does: He turns black and learns, with the help of the scheming Og and three traveling gospel singers, that the presence and contributions of African-Americans to art and society aren’t just incidental - they're integral. And once he opens his eyes, it’s not too hard for him to see. This is contrasted with two romances of more traditional musical-comedy provenance: Sharon with Woody Mahoney, the owner of the rich tobacco land Rawkins is trying to steal; and Og, who’s rapidly becoming human as a result of losing his gold, with both the alluring Sharon and the dream of America (and, yes, its women).
The plots are intricately and warmly laid out in Harburg and Saidy’s powerfully satirical book, and especially in the score. Lane’s music, equally recalling both the verdant slopes of Ireland and the magnolia-scented promise and bluegrass-tinged strains of the American South (a harmonica figures prominently into Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker’s orchestrations), is masterful enough. But Harburg’s lyrics are even better, spinning into pure gold ideas that in lesser hands might have stayed straw. The hauntingly hopeful “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow,” the slyly insinuating “Old Devil Moon,” the playful “Something Sort of Grandish” (itself a round-trip ticket to Ireland, courtesy of Og and Sharon), the scintillatingly Cole Porter-ish “The Begat” for the reformed Rawkins, and on and on and on.
Every song is superb, and a snug-fitting part of the book’s hope of America as a place for everyone. If things get a bit dicey at the end of Act I, when the sharecroppers turn to credit to salve their woes, it’s only because the last year and a half has reminded all of us that bills eventually must be paid.
It’s that idea, in fact, that makes one assume that, given our current economic climate, the producers copiously crunched the numbers and found a way to financially justify the cast and orchestra sizes. Artistically, there’s no question: When Finian’s Rainbow was presented at Encores! earlier this year, using a typically large cast and a typically original-size orchestra, audiences at City Center heard the value of a first-rate orchestra playing first-rate music, and saw the stage (more or less) filled with performers. Broadway audiences deserve no less, though they often receive it anyway.
But truly successful Broadway musicals also require that little something extra. The dazzling danger of Encores!’s minimal rehearsal period and the promise of only a weekend’s worth of shows energized this group in a way the (slightly) more leisurely pacing and consideration of a Broadway mounting hasn’t.
Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle’s production hasn’t changed much - and that’s part of the problem. Carlyle’s dances are fine as basic sketches, but lack the spark and invention needed to fill a full, orchestra-free stage. Toni-Leslie James’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lights are fine if uninspired, but John Lee Beatty’s unit set looks like his City Center skeleton reupholstered and repainted - and cheaply. And at Encores!, where the score is the thing, one accepts the use of “book adaptations”; but instead of switching adapters from David Ives to Arthur Perlman, whose choices (and copious cuts) are slightly different but not better, why not just do the real book and put to rest once and for all its reputation as racially offensive (which, given Harburg’s involvement, is laughable on its face)?
Plus, many of the actors are still performing as though they’re carrying scripts. This is most evident with Cheyenne Jackson, who’s utterly unequipped to play Woody, with far too thin and modern a voice and insufficiently charismatic rabble-rousing sensibilities - his insufficiencies at Encores! cannot be excused here. Kate Baldwin was radiant as Sharon there, and she still sounds heavenly in her songs, but her portrayal is too careworn and earthbound to let her convince as the show’s buoyant wish-maker. The honestly Irish (and just plain honest) Jim Norton, a Tony winner for The Seafarer, is just right as the gently opportunistic Finian, just not enough.
Alina Faye, as Woody’s deaf-mute sister, who communicates only by dancing, remains the easygoing presence she was at Encores! And Terri White, Rainbow Valley’s (black) de facto mayor and lead sharecropper, is even better at the St. James, blasting to the balcony and beyond with the first-act poverty-challenging showstopper “Necessity.”
Og’s journey is but one of the chambers in Finian’s Rainbow’s uniquely oversized heart, but it’s the most important one here, as it concerns giving up magic for reality. That this production made the same choice is its only real misstep, but it’s a big enough one to just prevent it from being a wish come true.