Friday, October 30, 2009

Theatergoers would do well to follow "Rainbow"

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) – A theatrical pot of gold awaits anyone who enters the St. James Theater, where the magical revival of "Finian's Rainbow" has opened. The classic musical, receiving its first Broadway revival in nearly half a century, has the kind of score, written by Burton Lane (music) and Yip Harburg (lyrics), that can still make any theatergoer swoon.

The longtime rap on this 1947 work is that the book, co-written by Harburg and Fred Saidy, was too problematic for modern times. But seeing the show again, in this version artfully adapted by Arthur Perlman, proves not only that the complaint is unjustified but that the racial and economic issues it touches upon are more relevant than ever.

Alternating between antic silliness and pointed social commentary, the story revolves around the arrival in the Southern state of "Missitucky" of the Irish Finian (Jim Norton) and his lovely lass of a daughter, Sharon (Kate Baldwin). Having stolen a pot of gold, Finian is determined to bury it somewhere near Fort Knox in the belief that this will cause it to grow.

The pair are chased by the gold's owner, a leprechaun named Og (Christopher Fitzgerald), who soon raises havoc in the racially divided community through such antics as turning a bigoted and corrupt white senator (David Schramm) black. Meanwhile, Sharon falls in love with the handsome Woody (Cheyenne Jackson), even while trying to avoid being charged as a sorceress.

Harburg's liberal sentiments are well reflected in his lyrics to such songs as "Necessity" (delivered in showstopping fashion by Terri White) and "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich." Needless to say, such lines of dialogue from the senator as "My whole family's been havin' trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country" and, referring to the Constitution, "I haven't got time to read it! I'm too busy defendin' it!" garner knowing laughs.

But whatever one thinks of the story, there's simply no disputing that this is one of the greatest musical comedy scores ever written. Here's but a partial listing of the classic numbers: "Old Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow," "If This Isn't Love," "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" and, of course, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?"

The production, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle in an expansion of the concert version presented last season at Encores!, does full justice to the material. Although the scenery and costumes are little more than serviceable, the performances couldn't be bettered. Norton is an impish delight as Finian, as is Fitzgerald as the lovestruck leprechaun; Baldwin is gorgeous in looks and voice as Sharon; Jackson, stealing hearts with his crooning of "Old Devil Moon," is the embodiment of a Broadway leading man; and Chuck Cooper and David Schramm are terrific in their respective turns as the white and black version of the senator (the role was played -- in now politically incorrect fashion -- by a single performer in blackface in the original production).

Also making terrific contributions are former American Ballet Theater ballerina Alina Faye as the mute Susan, who expresses herself entirely through dance, and well-known blues musician Guy Davis as the harmonica-playing Sunny.

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