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Finian's Rainbow

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cheyenne Jackson and Jim Norton
Photo by Encores!

Take note, musical theatre lovers: Spring has now sprung. You can't tell from the weather or the temperature, but one trip to City Center, at least until Sunday, and you'll see that green is indeed busting out all over - with a fare dose of red, orange, yellow, blue, purple and, perhaps most importantly, black and white. The reason for the hue and cry is the solid-gold presentation of Finian's Rainbow as part of the City Center Encores! concert series.

Is more explanation needed? If you're already familiar with the 1947 social-consciousness musical comedy by Burton Lane (music), Fred Saidy (book), and E.Y. Harburg (book and lyrics), you know that this show possesses one of the truly great musical theatre scores. "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?", "Look to the Rainbow," "Old Devil Moon," "Something Sort of Grandish," and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" are unassailable standards, tinged with the proper pep and lilt for this Irish-lined outing. But even the more stagebound selections are like fulfilled wishes, for the sheer scope of their melody and whimsical emotional perception.

If by some chance you don't know the show, because you've somehow missed productions (including an excellent, if scaled-down, one Off-Broadway five years ago), the film, and cast recordings, you should consider a live viewing a weekend requirement. Chances are sadly excellent you'll never again hear the sumptuous original Robert Russell Bennett-Don Walker orchestrations played by a full orchestra (of 32!) under musical direction as accomplished as that of Rob Berman, and performed by a cast as professionally peerless as the one led here by Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton, and Jeremy Bobb. Luckily the show is easy to savor, buoyed by good feelings, better common sense, and some of the suavest 1940s showmanship this side of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

That's why you not only believe but hinge on the tale of Finian McLonergan (Norton) and his daughter Sharon (Baldwin), who arrive in the American South from Ireland seeking to grow their fortune with the help of Fort Knox - with Finian concealing the fact he's already found one. Specifically, an enchanted crock of gold he lifted from the leprechaun Og (Bobb) who's chased the duo all the way to Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, determined to save his source of magic and identity - both of which are fading by the day.

Jeremy Bobb and Kate Baldwin
Photo by Encores!

But confusions, fortunes, transformations trail the trio. First as Sharon and Finian donate their own cash to save from dastardly auction the property owned by brother and sister Susan and Woody Mahoney (Alina Faye and Cheyenne Jackson). Then as Sharon falls in love with Woody. And finally as her carefully careless wish turns the scheming senator Billboard Rawkins (Philip Bosco), who's trying to usurp the tobacco-rich land, into the thing he most hates and fears: a black man. The last metamorphosis is his, as he comes to see that connection with humanity is not the exclusive domain of the white and the rich.

Many who want their musicals mindless and their morality simplistic have long sniffed their disgust at this twist: Turning a white man black as punishment - the very idea! That's not, and never has been, what happens. It's the tyrant learning to feel the pain he's wrought so he knows why he shouldn't inflict it. Though today's racial landscape is very, very different, this aspect of the plot is infinitely more powerful than insulting.

Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle has hopefully stilled this non-controversy for the foreseeable future by achieving the effect not with makeup or a mask, but with another actor: the fine Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a master August Wilson interpreter, and possessor of a nimble but amiable baritone. He only really gets to ply it in the Cole Porter-esque "The Begat," a Biblical litany of centuries of love (and other things) he sings with Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid, and Devin Richards, but he sounds impressive.

Nearly everyone does. Baldwin is rapturous as the egalitarian Sharon, pure without preachiness, and in superb voice in each of her classic songs. Norton, the unforgettable Tony winner for The Seafarer last season, is boisterously authentic as Finian, not to mention handy (or footy?) with a jig on the few occasions he kicks up his heels. Though Bobb is better known for plays (Is He Dead? and Translations on Broadway; the recent Shipwrecked! Off-Broadway) than musicals, he's an effortless comedian with a smooth (if obviously undertrained) voice who makes bales of comic hay of everything he touches or sings about.

As Susan, Faye communicates almost entirely through dancing (for plot reasons best left undescribed here), but is as lithe and expressive as any singer onstage. Terri White does little more than lead the realism-honed spiritual "Necessity," but she does it with such from-the-gut fervor, it's more than showstoppingly sufficient.

Jackson is waveringly bland as Woody, acting more through his smile than his soul (or his inconsistent accent), and the role needs slightly more voice than he can bring. (He and Baldwin do sound good duetting in "Old Devil Moon," however.) Carlyle's dances would also benefit from a bit more variety and his spoken scenes from more energy - they sag in ways the musical numbers generally don't. But by and large, he, concert adapter David Ives (doing some of his most sensitive work yet on this intricate book), and designers John Lee Beatty (set consultant), Toni-Leslie James (costume consultant), and Ken Billington (lighting) have helped the cast elicit every drop of freshness and relevance from this show.

With one exception. The first-act finale, "That Great ‘Come-and-Get-It' Day," finds the poor folk of Missitucky rhapsodizing about the endless wonders of credit. True, their bill comes soon after intermission ends, but the general effect is still one that readily summons up 1947 - or even 2007. Not that it matters. The rest of Finian's Rainbow is timeless and timely - although this production is sadly around for a limited time only.

Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert: Finian's Rainbow
Through March 29
New York City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets: New York City Center