Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton
NEW YORK – At the ripe age of 62, “Finian’s Rainbow” is the most beguiling musical of the new Broadway season. This revival of the Burton Lane/Yip Harburg/Fred Saidy 1947 hit has turned out to be anything but an old chestnut. Its infectious score, filled with lushly melodic songs like “Look to the Rainbow,” “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” is performed exhilaratingly with pitch-perfect aplomb by a top-notch cast of old and new Broadway talent.
The success of “Finian’s Rainbow” is quite a coup for its producers since it has been long thought to be unrevivable. One critic said the original had the most elaborate plot since War and Peace. There were also problems with the libretto’s outmoded political stands, and its handling of race issues was felt to be patronizing for today’s audiences.
A 2000 Broadway-bound production closed on the road, and a 2004 off-Broadway chamber version at the Irish Repertory Company only succeeded when most of the book was cut and the score was allowed to take center stage. Even Francis Ford Coppola’s 1968 film version failed, despite a big budget and stars like Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. Mr. Coppola’s attempt was betwixt and between an old-fashioned Hollywood musical and a serious social satire, and it baffled movie audiences.
This new incarnation began last spring as part of the popular City Center Encore! series, where Broadway musicals of the past are given short-run concert performances. There the talented writer Arthur Pearlman “adapted” Harburg and Saidy’s book. He whittled out the passé, clarified its more controversial aspects, brought out the romantic charm of the original story and let the music and lyrics breathe.
Harburg and Saidy had based their tale on the 1912 novel The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, which was written in the style of magical realism years before contemporary writers like Garcia Marquez and Borges discovered the genre. To this they mixed in a hefty dose of Irish mythology (read blarney) and borrowed several plot twists from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
It’s a tale about Finian McLonergan (played by the brilliant Irish actor Jim Norton in his first musical comedy turn) and his daughter Sharon (the soprano-voiced Kate Baldwin), who travel from Ireland to America, landing in the fictitious state of Missitucky in the 1940s. Finian has stolen a pot of gold from the leprechauns back home in Glocca Morra and wants to bury it here because, since Fort Knox is located nearby, he’s convinced this soil is fertile for growing gold. But Finian soon finds out that the crock has magical powers. Og, a leprechaun (the puckish clown Christopher Fitzgerald), arrives to retrieve the crock and the shenanigans begin: mayhem and magic mixed with song and dance and romance break out all over the green hills of Missitucky.
The revival has been directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who performed the same chores on the Encore! version. The direction is a bit inconsistent; at times this “Finian’s” can’t make up its mind if it is still a concert or a full-blown Broadway musical. The scenery by the usually reliable John Lee Beatty looks a bit paltry, as do the ordinary costumes by Toni-Leslie James.
Mr. Carlyle turns out to be a more proficient director than choreographer. His dances come in two flavors of the 1940s period: mock Agnes deMille ballet style for the ladies and a mock athletic Michael Kidd dancing style for the men. Think of the robust dances Mr. Kidd created for the film “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Mr. Kidd, incidentally, was the original choreographer for the initial “Finian’s Rainbow.”
But when you have a talented cast like this one, a director’s input becomes less important. Cheyenne Jackson is a standout as Woody Mahoney, a local sharecropper who falls in love with Ms. Baldwin’s Sharon. Over the past few years, Mr. Jackson’s looks, singing voice and stage demeanor in “Xanadu,” “Damn Yankees” and “All Shook Up” have turned him into an emerging musical comedy star of considerable magnitude.
Terri White is wonderful as Dottie, one of the local townsfolk, who lets loose near the end of the first act with the choral number “Necessity” that nearly blows the rafters off the theater. Then there is the amazing Chuck Cooper (Bill Rawkins), who shakes the rafters again in Act II with the help of three “gospeleers” with a second show-stopping choral number “The Begat.” They all contribute to making this “Finian’s Rainbow” a steadily enjoyable and entertaining show.
"Finian's Rainbow" is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Information is available at http://www.finiansonbroadway.com.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and writes about the arts and entertainment.