nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 4, 2009
I had a nice time at the new revival of Finian's Rainbow. Its score—with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg—is one of the half-dozen or so finest from the golden age of the Broadway musical, and hearing it played live, without much intrusive amplification, is sheer pleasure. Conductor Rob Berman, with his 24-member orchestra, are delivering the loveliest and lushest traditional Broadway sound this side of South Pacific.
But the production is not without its drawbacks. Finian's Rainbow was written in 1947, when what we think of as the modern musical was just finding its sea legs. The songs fit into the story, but this is not an integrated musical comedy of the sophistication of My Fair Lady or Guys or Dolls or even Brigadoon, which arrived on Broadway just two months after this show. The book, which is by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is jokey and sprawling and more than a little bit vaudevillian, stocked with set pieces (like the famous scene where the assistant to a bigoted Southern senator teaches his new Negro employee how to serve a mint julep) and brimming with social, economic, and political satire, like the example I just mentioned; or like this exchange between that same Dixiecrat senator and the play's heroine, Sharon McLonergan, after she calls him on his racist notions:
SENATOR RAWKINS: I don't know where you immigrants get all these foreign ideas!
SHARON: From a wee book the immigration inspector handed us, called the United States Constitution. Haven't you ever read it?
SENATOR RAWKINS: I haven't got time to read it! I'm too busy defendin' it!
Now, that's a joke that feels as resonant in 2009 as it must have 60 years ago, but it fell flat when I heard it in the theatre, because it's a kind of joke that has probably gone out of style. Finian's Rainbow is not particularly dated at all, except for a few details here and there. But it is very old-fashioned, and as a result very few of the artists associated with this production really demonstrate a heartfelt affinity for the material. Worse, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle and book adapter Arthur Perlman seem not to trust it much at all. Lots of Harburg and Saidy's original has been excised, or softened, or rearranged; I was particularly sad to observe that the original whimsical, magical ending has been replaced with something much more sentimental.
I should take a moment and narrate the story of Finian's Rainbow, in case you're not familiar with it. It concerns an Irishman named Finian McLonergan who has arrived in America with his daughter Sharon and a pot of gold he has stolen ("borrowed," he will tell you) from the leprechauns. His idea is to plant the gold in the ground near Fort Knox, where it will nurture the soil and make them rich. They wander into a place called Rainbow Valley in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, just in time to help save the local sharecroppers (whites and blacks both) from foreclosure on their land. Sharon falls in love instantly with the sharecroppers' spokesman, Woody Mahoney. Complications ensue with the arrival of Og, a leprechaun dispatched to retrieve the gold from Finian, and with the repeated attempts of Senator Rawkins to dispossess the sharecroppers. Sharon impetuously tells the Senator that she wishes he were black so that he would understand the effects of his hatred, and because she is standing on the spot where the pot of gold is buried, her wish comes true and the Senator in fact turns black.
The tone is light throughout, and there's never any doubt that all will turn out well for the good-hearted folk who vastly outnumber the villains in Finian's Rainbow. Harburg and Saidy have strong social consciences, but they are humanists and optimists, and the tale they spin is outlandish, supernatural, sweet-tempered, and rose-colored. Like I said: old-fashioned.
The book and the score are delivered in somewhat abridged and occasionally slightly punched-up form here; everyone stops short of winking at the quaint innocence of the material, but I sensed over and over again a directorial hand working harder than necessary to compensate for perceived weaknesses. The musical numbers, particularly, feel too busy: instead of simply singing "How are Things in Glocca Morra" straightforwardly to herself and the audience, Kate Baldwin's Sharon addresses it to her father; and Christopher Fitzgerald's rendition of the phenomenally witty "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" is so manic that the brilliant Harburg lyrics almost get lost in it. Almost, but not quite: I found myself smiling broadly by the end of this song, because it's so good it's indestructible.
The finest performances come from Jim Norton as the pixilated Finian and Cheyenne Jackson as the charming hero Woody Mahoney. Chuck Cooper plays the black version of Senator Rawkins and, as one of the strongest singers in the cast, finds himself singing lead in the grand comic song "The Begat"—it wreaks havoc with the book's logic, but it makes for a musical highlight. Baldwin's Sharon, though sweetly sung, is sadly lacking in vivacity and spirit, and Alina Faye as Woody's sister Susan, who "talks with her feet," flounders badly, though this is probably largely the fault of Carlyle's uninspired choreography. David Schramm misses the bold caricature of Rawkins by a mile; even his accent—which simply cannot be too broad—feels cautious and restrained. The smaller-than-desirable chorus is fine. The very skimpy set (designed by John Lee Beatty on what looks like a miniscule budget) is less than a first-class Broadway revival—not to mention an audience paying $100 and up for tickets—deserves.
But the music, as I have said, is glorious and wondrous. And the lyrics are rich and to be relished. In fact, I will let Mr. Harburg have the last word here:
When the idle poor become the idle rich,
You'll never know just who is who
Or who is which.
No one will see
The Irish or the Slav in you,
For when you're on Park Avenue,
Cornelius and Mike