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Finian’s Rainbow Review: Politics and Leprechauns, Updated

Why would anybody want to revive “Finian’s Rainbow,” a 1947 musical that features dancing black sharecroppers and a leprechaun whose pot of gold was stolen by a crafty old Irishman named Finian with a fondness for drink? I asked that question when I saw the 2009 Broadway revival, and answered it: The score.

That’s true again in the modest Off-Broadway revival at the Irish Rep, where a four-piece orchestra and a 13-member cast led by the glorious Melissa Errico do delicious justice to the show’s terrific tuneful melodies, written by 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.”) The 15 songs in “Finian’s Rainbow” are an inspiring mix of Irish folk tunes, Southern mountain melodies, Tin Pan Alley, gospel and the blues.

Given the music, we should be grateful that Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore was willing (as both director and adapter) to wrestle with a book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, that could hardly be more problematic or unwieldy.

Harburg, a committed socialist, fashioned “Finian’s Rainbow” to score progressive political points, but did so using then-current language and iconography that would read as offensively dated today. So, when Finian (Ken Jennings) and his daughter Sharon (Errico) come to the (mythical) American state of Missitucky, they meet racist Senator Billboard Rawkins (Dewey Caddell.) In the original production, the Senator referred to African-Americans the way racist Senators from the South referred to African-Americans in 1947. Sharon is so shocked by his prejudice that she wishes that he would turn black so that he could see what it was like. Since she is standing (unawares) over the pot of gold that her father had buried, her wish is granted. In the original production, the white actor is then presented in blackface.

Moore has eliminated the racial epithets, and has the actor don a brown eye mask — which tastefully symbolizes his racial transformation. (The 2009 Broadway production had a more elegant — but more expensive — solution: The Senator, when black, was portrayed by a black actor, Chuck Cooper.)

Other parts are toned down as well — Finian is not a noticeable drunk, for example, although he is still full of blarney.

Although the Irish Rep production plays down the politics in favor of the (whimsical and occasionally schmaltzy) fairy tale, Moore does take the liberty of inserting one now-topical issue, having the Senator inveigh against FInian for being a foreigner:  “My whole family’s been havin’ trouble with them damned immigrants ever since we came to this country.”

What’s most memorable are the melodies:

* Angela Grovey belting out the gospel-tinged “Necessity”

* The delightful duet between the dancing Susan the Silent (Lyrica Woodruff) and the singing Og the too-tall leprechaun (Mark Evans, making an entertaining New York stage debut), crooning: 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

* The impossibly lovely songs delivered by one or both of the romantic leads, Errico (who is reprising the role from the 2004 Irish Rep concert version) and the (deservedly ubiquitous) Ryan Silverman, including “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”, “Old Devil Moon,” and “Look To The Rainbow” with the uplifting 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. (Errico, it must be said, is as luminous as the first time I saw her perform, as a goddess in an Encores! concert, whatever she may think of herself.)

But it would be wrong to leave out two songs that serve dual functions.
1. “When The Idle Poor become the Idle Rich,” had such lyrics as:

When a rich man doesn’t want to work,
he’s a bon vivant,

But when a poor man doesn’t want to work,
he’s a loafer, he’s a lounger, he’s a lazy good for nothing

2. And “The Begat,” sounds like a song Cole Porter would have written:

The Greeks begat, the Swedes begat

Why even Britishers in tweeds begat

and 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.

Finian’s Rainbow
Irish Repertory Theater
Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy; Lyrics by Harburg; Music by Burton Lane; Choreography by Barry McNabb; Adapted and drected by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Melissa Errico, William Bellamy, Kimberly Doreen Burns, Dewey Caddell, Peyton Crim, Mark Evans, Matt Gibson, Angela Grovey, Ken Jennings, Ramone Owens, Kyle Taylor Parker, Ryan Silverman and Lyrica Woodruff
Running time: 2 hours including an intermission.
Tickets: $50-$70
Finian’s Rainbow is set to run through December 18, 2016

Update: Finian’s Rainbow is now running through January 29, 2017.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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