by Marilyn Lester
The “pixilated” musical, Finian’s Rainbow, so apt in the current climate of this contentious election year, has been revived by the Irish Repertory Theatre with a knowing twinkle in its collective eye. The result is a delicious and delightful antidote to the harsh realities we’ve been late suffering. And what better way to provide social commentary than in satire and glorious song.
Finian’s Rainbow opened in January, 1947 on Broadway, running for a solid 725 performances. The issues the show dealt with then resonate sharply today: politics, corruption, economic disparity, easy credit, immigration and racism. The book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy held nothing back, yet the two managed to get their points across with a gloriously wacky, satiric plot with plenty of comedy, trading on mythic ideas of Irishness. Yet, the waggish tale of romance and fantasy wrapping the steeliness of plot has been oft-criticized as cumbersome if not confusing. Director Charlotte Moore has adapted the book (originally presented in a 2004 concert version at the Rep), avoiding any datedness and updating the book to a more fable-like approach – without losing the bite. Moore also keeps the pace moving briskly, wisely utilizing every inch of the stage, giving the production a rewarding fulsomeness.
Unfolding on the gorgeously bucolic set, designed by the enormously talented James Morgan, the plot centers on a lovably scheming Irishman, Finian McLonergan, who steals a pot of gold from the leprechaun Og and hightails it to America with his beauteous daughter, Sharon. The pair wind up in Rainbow Valley, a lush farmland in the mythic Missitucky where Finian believes if he buries the pot of gold it will grow. Into this place, where white and black workers of the land cohabit splendidly, enters Og to cause mischief in the pursuit of his property. Also enter the bigoted U.S. Senator Rawkins and his henchman to swindle the good folk out of their land. Dewey Caddell as Rawkins with Peyton Crim as the Sheriff and Matt Gibson as Buzz Collins play their spoiler roles with appropriate wicked relish.
As the wily Finian, Ken Jennings presents a sight gag with the leprechaun, Og, played by the remarkably talented Mark Evans. The gag is, of course, that this particular rainbow-chaser Finian is leprechaun size – a diminutive actor in a top hat, while the real leprechaun is a gangly six-footer, albeit one in appropriately jester-like green from head and hair to foot. (Costume design by David Toser is uniformly engaging.) Barry McNabb’s choreography is joyous throughout the show, but especially suits, Evans, who’s lithe, fluid moves, and wry comedic approach, such as his takeoff of Irish step dancing and Riverdance are tremendously appealing and downright funny. His “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” is a happy-making, feel good song and dance humor-fest.
As Sharon McLonergan, Melissa Errico, who starred in the 2004 revival, reprises the role, bringing her experience and sublime voice to the fore. By her own admission she’s past the ingénue age for Sharon, but her gleeful and youthful demeanor more than make up for the difference. From the moment she begins to sing the first hit number, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” her pure soprano caresses the melody with the reassurance that nostalgia plays, and the show is in fine, capable hands. As her romantic lead, Woody Mahoney, the dishy Ryan Silverman, with his matinee idol good looks and charisma, adds to the magic of the production. Their duets on numbers such as “Old Devil Moon,” “If This Isn’t Love” and “Look to the Rainbow” make for wonderful chemistry.
The key to the ongoing success of Finian’s Rainbow is the score by Burton Lane (with lyrics by Harburg). Just about every song is a hit number with a combination of pop, traditional Irish and gospel influences. The score is a pot of gold that needs no burying, including ensemble songs such as “This Time of the Year,” “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” and “That Great ‘Come-and-Get-It’ Day.” The male ensemble, William Bellamy, Ramone Owens and Kyle Taylor Parker are a mini-chorus of pure joy, excelling (with Dewey Caddell) on “The Begat.” Angela Grovey as Sally Ann sings with first-rate, earthy gospel chops, while Kimberly Doreen Burns as Lily Mae counters sublimely with crystalline soprano clarity. The aptly named Lyrica Woodruff as Susan the Silent, who dances her dialogue, is a sprightly ballerina whose “Dance of the Golden Crock” allowed her to display her terpsichorean charm.
Making up the orchestra for this splendid production of Finian’s Rainbow are music director and pianist Geraldine Anello, with Janey Choi on violin, Melanie Mason on cello, and rounding out this distaff group, Nina Kellman on that Irish of instruments, the harp. Problematically, though, because of the physical arrangement of the instruments on stage, the piano often dominated, diminishing the overall sound quality of the music. Still, the choice of strings with piano created a beautiful, resonant accompaniment for Lane’s superlative melodies.
Other production credits go to Orchestrator Josh Clayton, Music Supervisor John Bell, Lighting Designer Mary Jo Dondlinger and Stage Manager Pamela Brusoski.
Finian’s Rainbow, October 26 through December 18, 2016
Run Time: 120 minutes, 1 intermission
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, 212-727-2737, www.irishrep.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg