BWW Reviews: FINIAN'S RAINBOW, Union Theatre, February 14 2014
So there's an oh so familiar group of poor white folks and even poorer black folks scratching a living in a dustbowl state in the Deep South. There's the sheriff too, keeping them in line with barking threats and an evil senator out to kick them off the land so he can sell it at a profit to the Electric Company. There's the feisty, beautiful girl too with her clean cut suitor, the pair being matched by her twinkly-eyed grandfather. And, and... there's a leprechaun with a magic crock of gold. Musical theatre, eh?
The deal in musical theatre is a bit like the deal in panto - if you're prepared to accept people bursting into song every five minutes and dancing about every ten minutes, then you've got to be prepared to leave much of your sense of "real life" at the door. And you certainly need to for Finian's Rainbow (at the Union Theatre until 15 March) which is somewhat ironic, because lyricist EY (Yip) Harburg was a committed socialist who could get real bite into songs like "When the idle poor become the idle rich". However, he also knew that a fully mixed race cast in late 1940s America had to be dressed up in a discourse the audience (and the backers) would understand. So, when staged then (and in its rare revivals since), the racist senator was "punished" by being turned black (in blackface too) and rewarded for his newly acquired empathy by being restored to whiteness. And that's before we get to the Irish who are very much "Oirish" throughout.
Charlotte Moore and Phil Willmott have wisely steered away from the overt racism of the original, with the senator railing against "immigrants", lumping the proletariat together. The crude colour transformation is ditched for a sanitised senatorial spell as a poor, but happy, man who sees life on the other side of the tracks and is wiser as a result. Other unpalatable references to racism are excised too. Though the accents wobble a bit, the Irish are still Oirish, yearning for a mythical Emerald Isle, needing no excuse for a bit of boozing and carousing, but - and for this we must be grateful - stopping short of favouring us with a Riverdance routine. One can't be too critical, though - you can take the blackface out of the senator, you can hardly take the green garb off of a leprachaun.
Why, then, revive something that must be so diluted? It's the songs, of course! The lilting melodies and gentle lyrics keep on coming: "How are things in Glocca Morra?"; "That great come-and-get-it day"; "Old devil moon"; and "Look to the rainbow". You might not know where the songs came from, but you know the songs as soon as you hear them! If the large, young cast inevitably vary in their ability to deliver musical theatre's holy trinity (singing, dancing and acting), the songs are given full value by Christina Bennington, a flame haired coleen, who delivers Sharon's setpieces with real skill and feeling. Raymond Walsh is endearing as the leprechaun who first fears his growing mortality and then, once he realises the benefits of human romance, embraces it (and any girl he can). There's good support too from lads and lasses leaping into each other's arms the moment that devilish moon is up
So if the plot is sanitised for 2014, the songs stand up wonderfully well - and it's the songs that matter in musical theatre. That's the deal, of course.