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The creators of this newest revival of Finian’s Rainbow, now playing at the St. James Theater, have tried to make this show so many things – comedy, drama, fantasy, social commentary and political commentary, that they’ve ultimately failed at making it any of them. Having obviously never seen the original 1947 production, which enjoyed a modest success, I’d be amazed to know how that original cast and crew succeeded with this meandering material, where this newer group has not.
The brainchild of "Yip" Harburg, most famous for writing the lyrics to the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the production is chiefly about Finian McLonergan, who immigrates to America from Ireland with his daughter after stealing a pot of gold from a Leprechaun. Settling into his new "Missitucky" home, he finds that the landowners are being forced off their land by a corrupt senator. As you can see, this material was already very heavy for a man better known for writing “Ha ha ha, ho ho ho, and a couple of tra la la’s/that’s how we laugh the day away in the merry ole land of Oz”. Amazingly enough, Harburg and co-librettist Fred Saidy are able to sustain these various elements for a while, but when even more plot-twists and shenanigans are introduced, the juggling act can’t be sustained. After a successful first-act, the second act loses all pace and focus.
Nor is the second act helped by its lack of any serviceable song. Harburg and composer Burton Lane wrote three terrific songs for Finian’s Rainbow, which are performed in quick succession early in the first act; but, they seem to have been so enamored of their lovely tunes “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” “Look to the Rainbow” and the truly enchanting “Old Devil Moon,” that they unleashed them with impunity early in the show, in the same manner that major lottery winners will quickly and casually spend their massive winnings without realizing that their resources are in fact limited. After these three delightful songs are performed, it’s as if the well has been drained dry, leaving the rest of the show with uninspired, sometimes pointless ditties. Shrewd storytellers who perhaps aren’t the greatest composers, but who are able recognize their wheat from their chaff, can organize their shows accordingly and propel a show to success with only one good song, let alone three. Cats, for example, is not a great score, but Lloyd Webber knew to put “Memory” at the end and save the best for last! Harburg and Lane had no such instinct.
They did have enough instinct to fill a fantastical show with magical moments and effects, many of which are handled beautifully. Technically, Finian is superbly executed. Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has arranged little bits of flash and flare to come together into some very nifty moments, as when the three-wishes from the Leprechaun’s crock of gold are granted. The set, lighting and sound design by John Lee Beatty, Ken Billington and Scott Lehrer, respectively, are of the caliber that one expects from the Broadway arena, with the exception of a poorly lit ballet sequence at the beginning of the second act, which was intended to be dark and magical but ended up being simply dark.
As for the acting, one cannot fault actors for failing to breathe life into a work unable to sustain it. The best crops in the world won’t flourish in poor soil, but, that said, Finian’s Rainbow is sometimes charming and delightful, in spite of itself, because of some standout performances. Most notable is Cheyenne Jackson as Woody. Cheyenne is an impossibly good-looking fellow with a riveting stage presence which could probably sustain a show without his doing any talking. His particularly confident manner tailors the role to himself comfortably. Kate Baldwin, as Sharon, essentially gives us two performances – an utterly charming speaking performance as a sweet and spirited lass, complete with an endearing Irish brogue … and then a mannered, reaching singing performance that drops the Irish accent entirely in order to caress every note. Someone needs to tell this new crop of Broadway actresses - Kelli O’Hara excepted - that this style of singing, the sort of cozying up to every note with feeling and love, is totally unbecoming, especially with such simple songs like “How are things in Glocca Morra?” which lend themselves to pure and unmannered vocals.
Christopher Fitzgerald is very funny as Og, the young, tallish Leprechaun. His role is quite thankless (a powerless Leprechaun is more pathetic than funny), but he does all he can to force out Harburg’s saccharine rhymes and dialogue. Alina Fayte as Susan, a purely dancing-role, is an entrancing ballerina. Terri White pulled off a bit of magic by making the completely superfluous song “Necessity” fun and entertaining. Finian, himself, is played by Jim Norton in a dapper, blithe way that adds class and grace to a production that could sure use them. And then there’s David Schramm and Chuck Cooper in scene-stealing turns as Senator Rawkins. The corrupt and bigoted Senator is perhaps the most crucial role in the show. Schramm and Cooper are given the most sensitive material in Finian’s Rainbow, the material that deals with racial tension, bigotry, and social injustice. Without their grand and intricate performances, the social messages of the show might never have come across as well as they did. At its core, Finian's is essentially a message show about overcoming prejudice. The “Rainbow” of the title is as much as physical rainbow as it is a metaphorical one, people of all creeds and colors living together in harmony in Missitucky.
It’s a noble sentiment, indeed. However, it’s been expressed so much more effectively in other musicals. Thematically, with its handling of race, Finian’s Rainbow treads the same ground as another current Broadway production, but unlike that Rodgers and Hammerstein show, Finian’s Rainbow plays like South Pacific-lite, the diet-Coke substitute for South Pacific’s Coke. It’s not nearly as heavy as South Pacific, but it’s nowhere near as substantial. And it’s nowhere near as enjoyable. Somewhere around the middle of the second act, in spite of a lot of charm and some winning performances, truthfully, I never wanted so much to reach a rainbow’s end. Of course, sadly, there was no pot of gold waiting for me with this rainbow. Oh well. C’est la vie.