November 14, 2009

The Varied Charms of "Finian's Rainbow"

Lines in front of Broadway theaters used to form organically when people queued up to get tickets to the latest hit.  They don’t need to do that now when you can just call Telecharge or click onto SmartTix.  But there’s something about a line winding around a theater that radiates excitement, so producers and theater owners have come up with their own way to replicate it.  They keep the doors closed until literally minutes before the show is scheduled to start and make ticketholders line up while they wait.  Some shows have even started cashing in on this by selling stuff to people while they’re standing outside on the street. 

There was a long line in front of the St. James Theatre and an usher hawking bottled water when my husband K and I arrived to see the new production of Finian’s Rainbow.  We have friends in the orchestra and K went to the first preview back on Oct. 8.  He came home wishing our friends well but wondering if the musical was just too old-fashioned to survive.  Still, he’d been entertained enough to return with me and he had a better time.  I was less enchanted.

There’s no complaining about the lovely music by Burton Lane or the witty lyrics by Yip Harburg that produced such standards as “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”  The problem is the book.  It weaves a ridiculously complicated tale about an Irish man named Finian who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold and brings it and his comely daughter Sharon to a southern state in the U.S. where a corrupt and bigoted white senator is trying to steal the land of an upstanding young farmer named Woody and the valiant sharecroppers who work for him. Got it?  Through magic, the leprechaun arrives to reclaim his treasure, the white politician is turned black, and Woody’s mute sister, who can only communicate through dance, undergoes two miraculous transformations.  Woody’s farm grows tobacco but it might as well be corn.

I was more won over by the show’s back story.  Finian’s Rainbow opened in 1947 when Jim Crow laws were oppressing black people in the South and McCarthyism was starting to terrify liberal-minded people throughout the country. But Lane, Harburg and co-book writer Fred Saidy created a show that condemned racism and poked fun at politicians.  And their show was the first on Broadway to feature a mixed company of black and white singers and dancers. Cloaking its beliefs under the mantle of fantasy helped Finian’s Rainbow run for a then-healthy 725 performances but its progressive message was still apparent for anyone who cared to look. A courageous act for the time.  And one that deserves to be remembered today.

Ironically, there’s never been a Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow until now because the show has been considered racist.  That’s because the actor playing the senator traditionally donned black face makeup after the character’s been turned black, a definite no-no in these more enlightened times. The current production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle with the unself-conscious gusto of a big Fifties musicals, has found a smart way around the problem that actually adds to the merry-making.

It’s also found a terrific cast.  Jim Norton, an authentic Irishman who I only knew from his dramatic roles in Conor McPherson plays, is delightful as Finian and Kate Baldwin makes a radiant Sharon. Christopher Fitzgerald, Chuck Cooper and Terri White are excellent in key parts but my personal favorites were Guy Davis, the son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, as a blues harmonica-playing field hand and Alina Faye, a former member of the American Ballet Theatre, as the dancing sister. I wanted an immediate encore when her solo number ended. Only Cheyenne Jackson’s Woody disappointed me.  As usual, Jackson looks great and sings well but he seems to have attended the Al Gore School of Acting. 

I enjoyed the show despite it corniness but the audience at our performance loved the show.  Although it might have been biased.  At least three rows were filled with friends and family members there to cheer on Christopher Borger, one of the kids in the show (click here to read his story). And after the show ended, White, who had recently been homeless (click here to read her story) was scheduled to have an onstage commitment ceremony with her partner Donna Barnett.  But the critics love the show too (click here for some of their reviews) and they’ve given it the kind of raves that, in the old days, would have created lines around the block. 


Esther said...

Wow, I wish I'd known the harmonica player was the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee!

The book is silly but I loved the music and the big dance numbers. Christopher Fitzgerald is fun and Kate Baldwin is lovely. In the end, I was charmed.

I'd read a comment from Yip Harburg's son in The New York Times about how his father really had to fight to have black and white actors dance together onstage. So I do admire the musical for being groundbreaking.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

It's as if you and I were sitting right next to each other. I admire the score and the progressive message for its time, but the book remains Finian's Rainbow's biggest detriment.