By Samuel L. Leiter
This past week has been a tough one to get through but, for two hours, at any rate, I managed to escape the political madness by visiting the mythical Jim Crow state of Missitucky, enchantingly reimagined in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of Finian’s Rainbow. This 1947 hit is guilty of occasional silliness and simplistic racial politics (once considered radically progressive). Nonetheless, it never stops pleasing as a tuneful, socially conscious, romantic fantasy laced with moonbeams, a leprechaun, rainbows, and a crock of gold.
Although the aforementioned treasure plays a significant role, the show’s true crock of gold is the eternally delicious score by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics), filled to overflowing with 17 songs, many of them now standards: most famous, perhaps, is the glorious, impossible-to-stop-humming “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?,” but there are also the up-tempo ballads, such as “Look to the Rainbow” and “Old Devil Moon.” Add spirited numbers like “Necessity,” with its infusion of scat singing, “Something Sort of Grandish,” “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day,” and the gold glows even more brightly.
Finian’s Rainbow, for all its datedness (tobacco plays a positive role!), has a surprising number of satirical points whose pertinence still pushes laugh-erupting buttons, including issues of race, wealth, unions, and immigration. Its fanciful plot tells of old Finian McLonergan (Ken Jennings) fleeing from Glocca Morra, Ireland, to Rainbow Valley, America, in the Missitucky mountains, with the magical crock (it provides three wishes to its owner) he stole from the leprechaun Og (Mark Evans); with him is his beautiful daughter, Sharon (Melissa Errico).
Finian plants the gold near Fort Knox, believing its contents will increase. Og pursues the McLonergans, finding himself becoming ever more human as he falls in love with both Sharon and a local girl, Susan the Silent (Lyrica Woodruff), a mute who speaks in ballet gestures. Love also blossoms between Sharon and union organizer Woody Mahoney (Ryan Silverman), within a subplot in which the racist Senator Rawkins (Dewey Caddell) mends his bigoted ways after being turned black by an imprecation from Sharon. By the final curtain, everyone, including the audience, ends up the better for whatever it is they’ve been going through. Would that real life were like this.
Moore has assembled a superb company of 13 to cover a trimmed-down, two-hour (with one intermission) version of Harburg and Fred Saidy’s book, which originally included over 30 performers. While it’s impossible to take seriously anything in the whimsical proceedings, the cast consistently delivers with affecting conviction and charm, led by the marvelous Errico (sweetly convincing as a character half her age), bringing beauty, assurance, happiness, and a gorgeous voice to her every moment.
The company is so good all deserve to be mentioned, beginning with the Mickey Rooney-like Jennings, a tiny tornado who defines the word “lovable,” as the comically irascible Finian; the silver-voiced Silverman (who paired with Errico so excellently in Passion a couple of seasons back) as the handsome Woody; Evans as a tall, spindly Og; and the lyrically lovely Lyrica Woodruff as the sprite-like Susan.
James Morgan’s lovely unit set—suggesting a neutral, vine-covered, Southern environment, with musical notes splashed across the upstage wall—beautifully integrates the Irish Rep’s infamous pillars into the décor. More visual sugar comes from James Toser’s colorful costumes, combining 1940s period wear with fanciful inventions like Finian’s vaudevillian, battered top hat and baggy pants. With the four-musician orchestra ensconced upstage under the expert directorship of Geraldine Anello, and magical lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger, Finian’s Rainbow is as much a pleasure to view as to hear.
Feeling down? Turn off CNN and look to Finian’s Rainbow for a crock of old-fashioned theatre gold.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through December 31
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).