Finian’s Rainbow Review: Old-Fashioned Broadway Hit…With A Problem
Question: What would make anyone want to revive “Finian’s Rainbow”? It has dancing black sharecroppers and a leprechaun whose pot of gold was stolen by a crafty old Irishman with a fondness for drink; it has a history of unlucky attempts at resuscitation; its provenance is so old that a critic writing in praise of the original 1947 production could assure his readers it was “no sissy show” — and be assured himself that nobody would be offended.
Answer: The score.
The new production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” which has just opened at the St. James Theater half a century after its last try at a full-bore Broadway revival, tries hard to turn a dated show with a problematic book into an extraordinary theatrical experience. It succeeds in doing so, magnificently, thanks to an unusually talented cast of comic actors, singers and dancers, and 13 songs that are either evergreen favorites or rousing revelations; not a dog among them.
This will not surprise those who know the songwriters, composer Burton Lane (whose long career on Broadway and in Hollywood included the discovery of Judy Garland) and lyricist Yip Harburg (who wrote the lyrics to more than 500 songs, including “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “April in Paris”, and many of the songs for “The Wizard of Oz.”) Inspired by Irish folk tunes, Southern mountain melodies, Tin Pan Alley, gospel and the blues, the songs in “Finian’s Rainbow” are so catchy that several are repeated (one of them three times) without the audience minding at all.
Any other show might be satisfied with one soul-satisfying and star-making number such as “Necessity,” featuring the harmonica playing of the theatrical prince Guy Davis — an exquisite blues musician with nine albums to his name who happens to be the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — and the singing of one Terri White, a life-long trouper who was homeless just a year ago.
Here is a “sneak preview” video of “Necessity” that doesn’t do complete justice to the final version:
But then there is the delightful duet (pictured on top) between the beautiful ballerina Alina Faye (only dancing) and the hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald, with whom she gets literally tangled up and who sings:
When I’m not near the girl I love
I love the girl I’m near…
When I can’t fondle the hand I’m fond of,
I fondle the hand at hand
And there is the classic song-and-dance number, complete with top hat and cane, “The Begat,” so deeply entertaining as a performance that some might miss the Cole Porter-like cleverness of such lyrics as:
The Greeks begat, the Swedes begat
Why even Britishers in tweeds begat
or the more pointed:
When the begat got to gettin’ under par
They begat the daughters of the D.A.R.
They begat the Babbits of the bourgeoisie
Who begat the misbegotten G.O.P.
And how can I fail to mention the impossibly lovely songs delivered by one or both of the romantic leads, Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson, including “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”, “Old Devil Moon,” and “Look To The Rainbow” with the inspiring melody
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow it over the hill and stream
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream
No, there are so many highlights in “Finian’s Rainbow” that it seems almost unfair to single out just a few of them.
Given all this pure entertainment and rich wit, one might feel ungrateful to point out any flaws in a musical that weirdly mixes fantasy, romance and political satire, and that, for all its moments of relevance, cannot be (or at least has not been) sufficiently updated to quell completely the qualms of an audience with 21st century sensibilities.
Finian McLonergan (played in a pitch-perfect performance by Jim Norton) brings that pilfered pot of gold and his beautiful daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin) to America in order to bury it in Rainbow Valley in the Southern state of Missitucky, so that it will grow and make him and his daughter wealthy. The land is owned by virile and well-liked Woody Mahoney (Cheyenne Jackson), although it is about to be sold at a tax auction to the racist Senator Billboard Rawkins (David Schramm), who wants to buy up all the land in the valley. Meanwhile, the leprechaun, whose name is Og (Christopher Fitzgerald) pops up from Ireland to retrieve his gold; without it, he’ll turn mortal. The gold has magical properties, granting three wishes and, in a fit of pique against the senator’s prejudice, Sharon wishes the senator would turn black, not realizing that, because she is standing over the pot of gold, her wish will be granted.
Let me stop here with the plot (which also involves two different love stories, a wedding, an arrest for witchcraft, some more magic, and a spoof of Sears and Roebuck), partly because I am already mortal and trying to describe any more of it could prove lethal. It is also at this point in the musical that most of the changes have been made. In the original production, Rawkins simply put on blackface makeup when he turned black. In an inspired change, the black Senator is now played by a second actor, Chuck Cooper, who was so wonderful in “The Life,” a role that won him a Tony. Cooper is the main singer in the quartet that does “The Begat,” but there is so relatively little made of this satiric premise that, out of curiosity, I looked at the original script.
What Was Changed or Omitted From The Original Production of “Finian’s Rainbow” (And What Francis Coppola Thought)
It surprised me to discover that the changes not only eliminated offensive language but also softened some of the satirical bite.
At one point in the original production, in an exchange with Og, the now-black senator complained about how black people are treated: “You can’t get into a restaurant. You can’t get on a streetcar. You can’t buy yourself a cold beer on a hot day. You can’t even go into a church and pray.”
The leprechaun asked him “who says you can’t?”
It’s the law, the senator replied, and I should know: I wrote it myself.
None of this caustic satire remains in the bowdlerized exchange between the senator and the leprechaun in the new production. Even the 1968 movie of “Finian’s Rainbow” – which was Fred Astaire’s last movie musical and only the second film directed by Francis Ford Coppola – left some of these lines in. (Coppola took the assignment because of the music without having read the original script, “and when I did,” he says in an interview on the DVD, “I was very shocked; it was a relic from an earlier time.”)
Also omitted from the current production are most references to tobacco (which is what the sharecroppers are farming) and the more virulent racist diatribes of the local sheriff (with several then-common derogatory terms for African-Americans). But gone as well is a passing reference to British oppression of the Irish. Deleted too is a line of dialogue from a white sharecropper who insists on “respect for white supremacy.” In the current production the white and black sharecroppers farm and sing completely in harmony.
When is the musical supposed to take place? If it’s supposed to be 1947, why omit specific references to conditions and attitudes at the time? If it’s supposed to be the current day, what are we doing with sharecroppers and a blatantly (if now vaguely) racist U.S. Senator in a plantation white suit and, for that matter, why do the farmers rely on a Sears and Roebuck mail-order catalogue (renamed the Shears-Robust catalogue) rather than ordering online or by telephone?
I realize that questions about time, place and logic are ludicrously literal-minded in a musical that features a leprechaun and is set in the fictional state of Missitucky rather than the state of, say, Mississippi. But it strikes me as equally ridiculous to claim, as the producers have been doing, that the racial theme in this show gains new currency and heft in the Age of Obama. Thanks largely to Hollywood, there is something forever tainted about images of happy black sharecroppers, no matter how much the show’s creators were using those then-prevalent images to score progressive political points.
It is worth noting the error of recently published reports about “Finian’s Rainbow” that the scene where a black servant is made to “shuffle” his feet in a stereotypical manner to please his employer, the senator, has been changed from the original, so that the servant is now working his way through college. He was doing so in the original as well! Even though the servant (then and now) gets the upper hand by the end of the scene, it still made me squirm. So does the depiction of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” even after having read the arguments that Shakespeare was using a genre familiar to audiences of the Elizabethan age (the anti-Semitic play) to argue for Jews’ humanity.
When Old-Fashioned Is New Again
However, there was one theme from the original production that seemed old-fashioned even in 1947, but has, unfortunately, gained new relevance — the perils of modern capitalism (Harburg was reportedly a long-time Socialist). This is the message behind “When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich” although the way it is staged in the new production, with the ensemble dressed up as an odd assortment of supposedly rich people (such as, confusingly, a jockey, a jazz musician and a James Brown-like caped figure), doesn’t focus with clarity on what Harburg articulated in interviews, “how consumption consumes the consumer.” The economic theme is clearer in several other scenes. The senator, for example, initially wants to buy up all the land in Rainbow Valley to prevent the government from using the river to generate electric power, which will make the valley’s residents more educated and more affluent and then “first thing you know,” the senator’s stooge says, “poll tax gets paid off, Rawkins gets laid off.” The loudest laugh during the performance I attended followed the speech Woody gives the other tobacco farmers, paper in hand, telling them it is a waste of time to try to look for the gold reputedly buried on their property: “This little piece of yellow paper is as good as money. Better in fact: this is credit.”
From Problematic To Produced: The Long Duet Between “Finian’s Rainbow” and City Center
“Finian’s Rainbow” is the latest Broadway transfer from the Encore! series at City Center, which was initially created to offer no-frills concert versions of problematic or otherwise neglected old Broadway musicals, but has become something of a mini Broadway try-out town on 55th Street. Among the almost 50 shows presented by Encores! since it began in 1994, four previously made their way to full productions on Broadway: “Chicago,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Apple Tree,” and “Gypsy” with Patti Lupone.
By odd coincidence, the history of efforts to revive “Finian’s Rainbow” in New York has been intertwined with City Center.
The first revival of the show was by the New York City Center Light Opera Company at City Center, scheduled only from May 18th to May 29th, 1955 with Merv Griffin (who would become a talk show host and game-show entrepreneur) playing Woody; the reviewer in the New York Times was unimpressed, saying it had lost the buoyancy of the original production.
It played at City Center yet again in 1960, again performed by the Light Opera Company (with a different cast), and again for a limited run. But then, much like now, it was so well-received that it transferred to a Broadway house, the same theater where it was first produced, the 46th Street Theater (now renamed the Richard Rodgers Theater). It ran just nine performances. This was not, however, necessarily a reflection on its quality. A labor dispute between all Broadway producers and Actors Equity shut it down, and it couldn’t afford to reopen.
It is sure to have more luck this time, and, despite its problems, deserves to. To remind you why, here is a link to a recording of musical highlights from the current show.
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at the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street
Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg, book by Yip Harburg and Fred Saidy
Book adaptation by Arthur Perlman
Original adaptation for Encores!
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Ken Billington, sound design by Scot Lehrer, hair, wig and makeup design by Wendy Parson
Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker
Book adaptation by Arthur Perlamn, original adaption for Encores! by David Ives
Jim Norton as Finian
Kate Baldwin as Sharon
Cheyenne Jackson as Woody
Guy Davis as Sunny
Alina Faye as Susan
Brian Reddy as Sheriff
David Schramm as Senator Rawkins
Terri White as Dottie
William Youmans as Buzz Collins
Chuck Cooper as Bill Rawkins
Christopher Fitzgerald as Og
With Aaron Bantum, Tanya Birl, Christopher Borger, Meggie Cansler, Bernard Dotson, Leslie Donna Flesner, Sara Jean Ford, Taylor Frey, Lisa Gajda, Kearran Giovanni, Tim Hartman, Lauren Lim Jackson, Tyrick Wiltze Jones, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevin Ligon, Monica L. Patton, Joe Aaron Reid, Devin Richards, Steve Schepis, Rashidra Scott, Brian Sears, Paige Simunovich, James Stovall, Elisa Van Duyne
Ticket prices range from $25 to $120. Student rush, $27.
Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Richard Kornberg and Associates
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