Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Finian's Rainbow

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 6, 2016

Ken Jennings and Melissa Errico
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Maybe it's just late-election malaise talking, but Missitucky is looking pretty darn nice this time of year. The lush, green rainbow valley; the bad guys who don't just get their comeuppance, but become legitimately good; the glorious sounds that waft through the air as if they'd emerged from the harps of heavens' angels themselves—it's everything you want in a getaway destination. And, thanks to the Irish Repertory Theatre, it's possible in a joyous, colorful revival of the musical Finian's Rainbow, which stars Melissa Errico and is running through December 18.

Level concerns, if you truly have nothing better to do: It's ancient (well, er, 1947); it's overexposed, either by the standards of the Irish Rep (which put on a similar production 12 years ago, also with Errico at the forefront), or by New York itself (a 2009 Encores! production led to a Broadway revival later that year); it's softly prejudicial in the way it itself would be the first to decry (more on this later). But watching Charlotte Moore's small-scale (13-actor) but big-hearted spin on this work by Fred Saidy (book), E.Y. Harburg (book and lyrics), and Burton Lane (music), it's hard to care too much about the babblings of any nattering naysayers.

This is, admittedly, mostly thanks to the score, which ranks as one of the very best ever composed for a Broadway musical. There are the indefatigable standards, yes, in "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Old Devil Moon," the former longing and wistful, invoking a scene-setting whimsy that's all the more remarkable for the fact that we never see the scene it sets (the action is set entirely in the American South), and the latter seamlessly blending Irish lilt and country twang with the unfailing optimism that accompanies intimate celestial observations (at least between couples).

But the second-run stuff here would be first-tier anywhere else: "Look to the Rainbow" (effusively romantic in the classical sense), "Something Sort of Grandish," "If This Isn't Love," "That Great Come-and-Get-It Day," and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," all of which put wry, unexpected twists on topics ranging from tolerance to love to affluence. And even the comparatively throwaway songs (generally closely tied to the plot), "This Time of the Year," "Necessity," "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," and "The Begat," are so good that if your toes don't tap uncontrollably during them, you'd better call a podiatrist.

At its center, though, Finian's Rainbow is serious business. Its underlying story, about a brother and sister in a poor rural community who must contend with not only government corruption but also virulent racism from the same official, one Senator Billboard Rawkins, is pretty hefty stuff, even by the maturing standards of the post Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II 1940s. It just tends not to seem that way, since it's buoyed by the presence of Finian McLonergan (Ken Jennings) and his daughter Sharon (Errico), who arrive in Missitucky with the intent of building a better life for themselves—and the mischievous leprechaun, Og (Mark Evans), who tracks them there after Finian steals his wish-granting crock of gold.

The Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Traditional tropes are at play, of course. There's not much doubt that Sharon will fall for Woody Mahoney (Ryan Silverman), who's fighting Senator Rawkins (Dewey Caddell) and his lackeys, even if Og, in the process of becoming more human because of misplacing his treasure, also is developing a thing for her. And because of the air of magical improbability that permeates everything, it's not like there's ever really a question that Senator Rawkins, faced with the preternaturally accepting Irish and a closely integrated racial society, will eventually come around (even if he needs an extra-long nudge), or that Woody's mute sister, Susan (Lyrica Woodruff), who speaks entirely through dancing, will someday find her voice.

So disarming, so innocent, is everything here, that nothing else matters. That includes, by the way, the most frequently leveled criticism about the book: that, through its shin-shifting treatment of Rawkins it somehow ends up taking his side in the argument. No, it doesn't—it's giving him a dose of his own medicine, which, given his malady as it's predicted, is about the only cure that would work. The terms here are simple, not simpleminded, and promote more inclusiveness, not less. Even if social advancements of the last 70 years have made this necessarily a period piece, it still works when treated as honestly and forthrightly as Moore does here.

She doesn't use the whole book, which is a shame, and at times gives the proceedings an Encores! race-for-your-life vibe that runs counter to its laid-back nature. Although I'm not positive Moore's adaptation is identical to the one she implemented in her 2004 revival, it's similar, even though not much else here is. Rather than two pianos, there's a chamber ensemble of four (the musical director is Geraldine Anello), playing Josh Clayton's lovely little orchestrations, which include a harp. The set (by James Morgan) is heavy on the green and the homespun charm, suggesting a county social or garden party where friends get together for fun (an effect underscored by seeing cast members perched on upstage chairs during other scenes); the costumes (David Toser) and the lights (Mary Jo Dondlinger) further imbue the evening with a more informal and personally appealing feel than the barer but more upscale earlier mounting. (Barry McNabb choreographed that one and this, piling on plenty of low-key but amusing steps to round out the numbers.)

Errico remains an endearing Sharon, playing her as a woman with a mission, and one who's deceptively defiant beneath her soft outer shell; her vocals are a bit beltier now than once they were, but they're still firm and luscious, and she's a gripping delight. If Silverman is a hair too presentational as Woody, he's lively and his baritone hits the bull's-eye on his songs, particularly when opposite Errico (his one-time costar in the CSC Passion), with whose voice his blends beautifully. Caddell is more bright than menacing as Rawkins, but a treat nonetheless; so are Woodruff as a sweet, cannily danced Susan, and Angela Grovey as the energetic sharecropper who leads the dreamy "Necessity." Jennings pours on the dodder a bit much as Finian, but is comedically astute—most of the time looking like an aged-out leprechaun himself—and quite moving in the final speech where he sets course for more verdant pastures.

As for Evans, he's light of foot and nimble of voice, and a lithe presence onstage, even if he lacks just a smidgen of the charisma and pinpoint-precise timing that could make Og an unqualified showstopper. But his shortcomings, like so many of this production's, fade into irrelevancy once the songs get going. Og's big one is "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," still a gold standard for musical-comedy cleverness. When he bites into those peerless lyrics—"As I'm more and more a mortal / I am more and more a case / When I'm not facing the face that I fancy / I fancy the face I face"—this Finian's Rainbow, like the sadly mythical Missitucky, seems like the best place in the world to be.

Finian's Rainbow
Through December 18
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix