Broadway Blog - Finian's Rainbow: Musical Comedy Gold
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Finian's Rainbow: Musical Comedy Gold
by Michael Dale - March 29, 2009
"If musical theatre doesn't address important issues, who will?," read a t-shirt I spotted at the Broadway Flea Market several years ago.
And while America's theater history is rich with important issue addressing musical dramas like Show Boat and Ragtime, when Finian's Rainbow hit Broadway in 1947 it was pretty much unheard of for a musical comedy to have its main plot centered on attacking institutionalized racism.
Of course, if you only listen to the Burton Lane music and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg lyrics, you might mistake Finian's Rainbow for a sentimental musical romance typical of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era; though certainly one with a superior score that mixes Irish folk, blues and gospel through the Broadway sifter. The subdued sexuality of "Old Devil Moon," the pure hopeful tenderness of "Look To The Rainbow," the breezy flippancy of "The Begat," the noble affection for home express in "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and the fickle-hearted waltz, "When I'm Not Near The Girl I Love (I Love The Girl I'm Near)" would be enough to make this a significant Broadway entry. But when you add the joyously building "If This Isn't Love," the snooty delight "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich," the lyrical whimsy of "Something Sort of Grandish" and... well, I could just list the who darn score here... you have one of the most sumptuous collections of melody and gentle wit ever presented on a Broadway stage.
It's only when you consider the book, penned by Harburg and Fred Saidy, that you realize that in its premiere run a night at Finian's Rainbow was like attending a taping of one of the most sharply satirical editions of Saturday Night Live. Its story of an Irish immigrant who arrives in the American south (the Rainbow Valley section of the state of Missitucky, to be exact) to bury a pot of gold "borrowed" from a leprechaun in the ground near Fort Knox - because he's heard that just letting gold lie inactive in that ground rapidly increases its value - cheerfully spoofed the nature of the bustling American postwar economy ("We got something better than money! It's credit!"). But what made Finian's Rainbow really daring was when it asked us to laugh at those who would institute poll taxes and write segregation into our law books at a time when these practices were still going quite strong. Eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and three months before Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lane, Harburg and Saidy presented the American theatre with a white racist senator who, through the magic of a pot of gold, is accidentally changed into a black man and must consider facing the rest of his life being subjected to the kind of discrimination and hatred he used to enforce. And they made it funny.
Hopefully we're somewhat more advanced nowadays when it comes to race relations but the positively dazzling Encores! concert revival of Finian's Rainbow proves there's quite a bit in the material that still gets contemporary laughs; especially when the jokes remind us of just how fragile the economy can be. We can heartily enjoy it when Philip Bosco, as the smug Senator Billboard Rawkins, arrogantly blurts out such absurdities as, "My whole family's been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country," and even though some may get a tad uncomfortable during a scene where his new black servant (Joe Aaron Reid) is taught the proper way to shuffle when he serves mint juleps, the comic payoff is a scream.
And this is a score that screams to be heard by a full orchestra embracing Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker's string-heavy and full-bodied orchestrations. Rob Berman's 32-piece ensemble practically converses with themselves though the extended dance sections and the playfully arranged overture. Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle's buoyant production boasts a loveable, strong singing cast headed by Jim Norton as a rascally comical Finian. As his brash daughter, Sharon and the strapping tobacco sharecropper Woody, Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson thickly fill the City Center air with romantic musical theatre magic as she tenderly voices "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" and "Look To The Rainbow" and the two of them simmer with sexual tension as they ponder the "Old Devil Moon."
As Og the leprechaun, Jeremy Bobb nicely delivers Harburg and Saidy's delicately-worded humor playing a character that experiences a different type of sexual tension; having lost his pot of gold, he's gradually becoming mortal and is going through the same kind of inconvenient discomfort that afflicts pubescent boys.
Though for decades productions of Finian's Rainbow have been using blackface makeup to accomplish the feat of changing the senator's skin color (a point that has caused some to declare the musical itself as being racially insensitive) more recent productions have been utilizing other means. For Encores! Bosco's blustery fool is magically replaced by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who mourns the loss of his white identity until he finds friendship and good will with a gospel quartet in need of a new quarter. The snappy harmony and precision classiness that Santiago-Hudson, Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid and Devin Richards bring to "The Begat" is just sensational.
Also pretty sensational are the molasses thick vocals Terri White uses to fill the house with vibrancy as she leads the ensemble in the bluesy, "Necessity," and the airy grace and charisma of Alina Faye as Woody's mute sister Susan, who only communicates through dance.
David Ives performs his usually Encores! task of editing the book to a concert adaptation, and though I always prefer to see the material as the authors wrote it, I'll credit him for allowing the whimsical voice of the original to ring out strong and clear, ridiculing the notion that this is a musical with a creaky, impossibly dated book. There really is musical comedy magic in Rainbow Valley.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson; Bottom: Terri White and cast