Finian's Rainbow

NY City Center Encores! – March 2009

Review by John Kenrick

Encores brought its season to a triumphant close with a loving and downright grandish concert staging of Finian's Rainbow. With irresistible melodies by Burton Lane, delicious word-bending lyrics by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, and a still-hilarious original libretto by Harburg & Fred Saidy, it amazes me that this hit-packed musical has almost fallen out of use. Its racial, political and financial satire are as up to date as ever, and I dare you to find any music of the last ten years with anywhere near the abundance of wit, heart and shining melody that fill this 1947 hit.

The plot involves Irish immigrant Finian McLonergan, who has somehow managed to steal the legendary leprechauns crock of gold. He drags his lovely, spirited daughter Fiona to America, where he plants the crock in the "rich" soil near Fort Knox -- hoping that the gold will grow. Fiona swiftly finds love in the rugged arms of Woody, an itinerant worker who helps his black sharecropper neighbors fight off the land-grabbing schemes of racist Senator Rawkins. Things are complicated by the appearance of Og, a leprechaun desperately trying to get the crock of gold back to Ireland before he and his kind are turned into mortals -- and by Fiona inadvertently using the crock's magic to turn the bigoted Senator into a black man. Since this is a musical comedy, the crazy plot twist all lead to a sweet conclusion, but the Harburg-Lane score provides even more magic with such songs as "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," "Look to the Rainbow," and the glorious "Old Devil Moon," among others.

Jim Norton provides a genuine Irish brogue and a truckload of charm as Finian, and Kate Baldwin is a sheer musical and dramatic joy as Fiona. As Woody, the unspeakably sexy Cheyenne Jackson sends high notes and hearts flying with breath-taking abandon -- oh what a joy it is to hear this kind of full-out singing, something becoming all too rare on our stages today. Broadway stalwart Philip Bosco is a comic treat as the pin-headed Senator, and American Ballet Theatre's Alina Faye is sensational as Woody's sister Susan, a deaf mute who dances to communicate -- she shares a remarkable show-stopping moment with harmonica virtuoso Guy Davis. Veteran belter Terri White turns the underrated "Necessity" into yet another surprise show-stopper, setting it afire with her trademark blend of soulful singing and masterful mugging. Jeremy Bobb is merely pleasant as Og, a role which requires far more charm than this talented actor provides here.

The Encores production team does a handsome job on a shoestring budget, most noteworthy for a rainbow-shaped framework that framed the stage. Director Warren Carlyle keeps the sometimes complicated action easy to follow, and choreographs this dance-heavy with a sure and stylish hand. Musical director Rob Berman continues to prove a blessing to the Encores series, treating this score with all the loving care it deserves.

Many ill-informed people will tell you that Finian's Rainbow is out of date -- and anyone who sees this outstanding Encores staging will tell you what utter nonsense that is! Here's hoping that this wonderful musical can finally become a regular presence on our stages once again. Like real rainbows, this embarrassment of musical and comedic riches should be seen and delighted in far, far more often.

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