Review: Scaled-Down ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ Charms at Irish Rep
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, December 9, 2016
For years, talk among the theaterati held that Finian’s Rainbow was an un-revivable musical. Not because of the score, to be sure, as it consists of what might be the single greatest collection of songs-qua-songs in the musical theater canon. And not because of the book, although in truth the show’s creaky libretto shares more with the episodic, lumbering books of pre-Oklahoma! musicals than those that came after.
No, a revival of Finian’s Rainbow was considered a dicy proposition because a major plot point in the show involves a wish (on a leprechaun’s pot of gold, don’t you know) that turns a bigoted Southern senator’s skin from white to black. In the original 1947 production, as well as in the bloated 1968 film version, this effect was achieved with blackface, which today is considered offensive, and quite rightly so.
The 2009 Broadway revival found an ingeniously simple way of solving this problem: the role of the senator was played by two different men, one white and one black. And yet despite a stellar cast (Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson, Jim Norton, Christopher Fitzgerald), and some rousing choreography from Warren Carlysle, that production only lasted 92 performances.
So, the current production of Finian’s Rainbow at the Irish Repertory Theatre in the Chelsea section of Manhattan raises two questions: How do they handle the white-to-black transformation? And based on the short run of the recent Broadway production, is there really enough of an audience for a profitable run of Finian’s Rainbow?
Well, considering the diminutive size of the Irish Rep cast (13 performers, versus 30 in the revival, and 56 in the original production), double casting the Rawkins role apparently wasn’t an option. So, Dewey Caddell as Senator Rawkins at one point in the transformation scene dons a light brown mask with subtle commedia dell’arte features. It seemed a bit creepy at first, but eventually my disbelief-suspension mechanism kicked in, and the mask became just another production element.
As for the financial viability, well, again the cast is small, and this is a nonprofit theater company, so overhead is considerably lower than on Broadway. And the show appears to be selling quite well, as the production, which was originally scheduled to run until December 18th, has been extended through January 29th. That’s about 110 performances, and may just be enough to put the production in the black.
As for the show itself, the score features an unequaled collection of absolutely sterling songs, each one more melodic and appealing than the previous one. Of course, this was at a time when some composers were aiming for more cohesive scores as opposed to collections of songs, but it’s really hard to quibble with the quality of such glorious ballads as “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Look to the Rainbow.” such smart and lively uptempo numbers as “If This Isn’t Love” and “Old Devil Moon,” and such comic charm songs as “Something Sort of Grandish” and “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.”
The show’s book is another story. Sure, Finian’s Rainbow was daring for its time in addressing racism head-on in a comically satirical way. But the libretto plods along from scene to scene, without any apparent forward motor to the plot. Elements arise with little justification and abstruse purpose. (I’ll be damned if I can figure out why the silent Susan decides to steal away with the crock of gold and hide it someplace else.) The show plays like a series of song setups, at least as adapted here by director Charlotte Moore. So Finian’s presents a unique combination of old-fashioned craft (great songs, weak book) with a fiercely modern sensibility.
Director Moore and choreographer Barry McNabb make the most of the tiny stage space at the Irish Rep, and the results are sometimes quite lively. One rather enervating exception is the Act Two opener “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” often an elaborate parade of fancy goods that the townspeople have purchased on credit, but here staged as an immobile tableau, as though the people were all bloated after a clambake. And the 11 o’clock crowdpleaser “The Begat” is vocally sensational (thanks to the fine efforts of chorus members Ramone Owens, Kyle Taylor Parker, and William Bellamy), but the pedestrian staging is pure amateur theatrics.
Thankfully, the remainder of the cast is in strong voice as well. Most of the featured performers seem to have been born to sing these songs. Melissa Errico is a quiet, impish delight as Sharon. Any quibbles about whether she’s too old for the ingenue role (at 46) disappear once she wields her glittering soprano on “Glocca Morra.” Ryan Silverman is spot-on as Woody, lively, golden-voiced, not to mention stunningly handsome.
Mark Evans as Og the leprechaun is quite a find. The Og part is very easy to overdo, but Evans brings confidence, charm, and admirable restraint to his performance. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of Mr. Evans in the future. Ken Jennings (the original Toby in Sweeney Todd) at times makes for a fine Finian, but at the end of the show his performance got a bit too actory and mannered and just plain overcooked, which created an anticlimactic effect on the final moments.
On a final note, it was nice to see the newly renovated space at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Thankfully, there’s no more ungainly L-shaped auditorium, and there’s a staircase leading up to an added balcony section, but there are still awkward columns blocking the view on stage right. (And, alas, there’s still the same snaking line for the coed bathroom on audience left.)
Finian’s Rainbow; presented by Irish Repertory Theatre, New York City extended run scheduled through January 29, 2017. Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy; lyrics by Harburg; music by Burton Lane; adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore; choreography by Barry McNabb. Cast: Melissa Errico, William Bellamy, Kimberly Doreen Burns, Dewey Caddell, Peyton Crim, Mark Evans, Matt Gibson, Angela Grovey, Ken Jennings, Ramone Owens, Kyle Taylor Parker, Ryan Silverman and Lyrica Woodruff.
Cover: Mark Evans and Melissa Errico in Finian’s Rainbow;’ photo: Carol Rosegg