Irish Repertory Theatre, NYC, December 3, 2016
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes
At a time when we really need it, we are being treated to some of America’s most magical musical moments with Finian’s Rainbow at the intimate renovated Irish Repertory Theatre. With Burton Lane’s melodies and pungent lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, who also co-wrote the book with Fred Saidy, prepare to have your spirits lifted by some glorious songs, ebullient warmth and a rich cast. Add to this a weighty, if improbable, socially significant conscience with relevant songs like “That Great Come-and Get-It Day” and “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.”
Finian’s Rainbow, originally produced in 1947, was featured at the Irish Rep in 2004, starring Melissa Errico, who returns in this production as the fetching Sharon McLonergan, snappy with an Irish brogue. The plot is frothy at best, but director Charlotte Moore streamlined it without blurring any of the fantasy. With James Morgan’s picturesque set design capturing the enchantment, the show features an onstage stellar chamber quartet, including Musical Director/pianist Geraldine Anello, violinist Janey Choi, Melanie Mason on cello and Karen Lindquist on harp.
As the story goes, Sharon and her father, Finian, affably played by Ken Jennings, arrive in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, somewhere in the hills of the Jim Crow South. They left Ireland because Finian purloined a pot of gold from Og (Mark Evans), a lanky leprechaun in the old country. Quickly, Finian buries the gold and he and Sharon turn to meet their neighbors, a multiracial group of sharecroppers led by a guitar-strumming union leader Woody Mahoney (Ryan Silverman).
Good news: Woody and Sharon take a liking to each other. Bad news: Og turns up in Rainbow Valley looking for his pot of gold. He finds that, without the gold, he is losing his leprechaun ways and becoming human. Enter the local bigot, Senator Billboard Rawlings (Dewey Caddell), fighting integration and immigrants. He gets some audience response when he scoffs, “My whole family’s been havin’ trouble with them damned immigrants ever since we came to this country.” It is Rawlings’ racism, however, that turns against him when he suddenly switches from white to black, managed by a tan half-mask.
The score is winning. It is delightful to hear “Something Sort of Grandish” when Evans, in his Off-Broadway debut as the amusing Og, whimsically pleads to Sharon, “Life could be so love-in-bloomish/If my ‘ishes could come true.” Sharon, however, only has eyes for the hunky Woody. Og, therefore, turns to Woody’s willowy sister, Susan the Silent (Lyrica Woodruff) and delivers “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” with another tongue-twister, “For Sharon I’m carin’/But Susan I’m choosin’/ I’m faithful to whos’n is here.”
Errico sings as beautifully as ever and projects a breezier, more down-to-earth maturity than she did in 2004. Listen to her rendition of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” remembering the home she left. With Silverman, she captivates in “Old Devil Moon” and, together, they bring a delightful buoyancy to “If This Isn’t Love.” The whole ensemble rises to the heights with “Look to the Rainbow.” With gospel fervor, Angela Grovey rouses the community with “Necessity” (“The Lord says, ‘Go out and have fun,’/But the landlord says, ‘Your rent ain’t paid'”) and the company feels the spirit with “The Begat.”
Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting design illuminates the ambiance of Morgan’s rural countryside set. David Toser costumes the community in plain work clothes, with a filmy gossamer dress for Woody’s sister, Susan the Silent, who expresses herself gracefully in “Dance of the Golden Crock.” Still, I have to wonder why he chose such a drab dress for Errico.
This production stresses the romantic side over the social commentary, but points about racism and immigration are firmly made and Finian’s Rainbow remains a welcome addition to this or any season’s musical lineup.