Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

The minute I got home from seeing “Finian’s Rainbow,” I logged on at my computer, went to the iTunes store, and downloaded the recording by the original 1947 cast.

This is meant as no disparagement to the current cast. I am, indeed, very appreciative of having the opportunity to see a full-blown production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” with its magnificant, eclectic score by Burton Lane and lyrics by Yip Harburg. I may even go see it again later in its run.

But that original cast album is an icon of my youth. I played it over and over again in my teenage years and relished every note and word. It remained my favorite cast album until 1968 and “Hair,” but that’s another story for another time.

I saw this production of “Finian’s Rainbow” on the day of its first preview. Just before the overture began, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle came out and announced that one of the leads, Alina Faye, who performs the role of “Susan the Silent,” had been stricken with pneumonia, and that her understudy would be going on with just three hours of rehearsal time. I also noted that the house was far from sold out. Had I missed some gossip about problems with the production?

As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded. Faye’s replacement, Leslie Donna Flesner, was excellent in the part, displayed confidence in her performance, and danced beautifully in a role that requires extensive dancing; the character of Susan is mute and communicates through dance. Indeed, the choreography is one of the real strengths of this production, which had its gestation last season as part of the Encores! series of semi-staged musicals at City Center under the gifted baton of Rob Berman, who remains alongside Carlyle at the helm as conductor, musical supervisor, and vocal arranger.

Even for a first preview, the cast worked well together. Perhaps Cheyenne Jackson is a tad too modern in his mannerisms, but his charisma and good looks serve him well in the role of Woody, Susan’s brother and the de facto leader of the sharecropping tobacco farmers of Rainbow Valley in the great state of Missitucky. Woody is supposed to be charismatic and good looking. It also doesn’t hurt that Jackson can perform those wonderful Burton/Harburg songs, particularly “Old Devil Moon,” just beautifully.

Whatever you do in casting “Finian’s Rainbow,” you’ve got to get the right person to play Sharon, Woody’s love interest and, really, the lead character in the show. I am happy to report that Kate Baldwin is just right for the part. She has a lovely singing voice and has her character’s feisty nature and sense of humor down pat. She also gets to sing almost every number, including the best of the show’s tunes: “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “If This Isn’t Love,” and the aforementioned “Old Devil Moon.” Expect a Tony nod in her direction.

Of the rest of the cast, Jim Norton, who won a 2008 Tony Award for his superb performance in “The Seafarer,” is a charmer as Finian McLonergan, Sharon’s father who has come to America with a dream in his heart and the determination to make sure that dream comes true, however farfetched it may seem to others and no matter how much blind faith and magic it takes to make it happen. 

Actually, there is a magical creature in sight, and that is the leprechaun Og, played with just the right amount of twinkle-eyed mischief and an adolescent’s burgeoning romanticism and sexual awakening by Christopher Fitzgerald. Even if he can’t quite erase my own vision of Og as I imagined him to be performed by his original portrayer, David Wayne, Fitzgerald still casts his own delightful spell as he falls in love first with Sharon, then with Susan (“When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love, I Love The Girl I’m Near.”). 

The ensemble of players is uniformly strong, but it is worth a special mention to note that Terri White brings out the swinging verve in the song “Necessity,” and that Guy Davis as Sonny plays a mean blues harmonica and gets to shine in the “Dance of the Golden Crock,” accompanying a solo dance piece for Susan that makes little sense as a plot element but which is so good that we need not to concern ourselves with such trivial matters as plot.

Speaking of which, the plot of “Finian’s Rainbow” is more than a little peculiar, involving as it does a mixture of Irish blarney, a real-life leprechaun, the plight of sharecroppers in the rural South, a plea for racial harmony, an extolling of both tobacco and the wonders of buying on credit, and songs that often advance the plot not one iota.

But oh those songs, those glorious songs! So never mind trying to follow the plot. Just immerse yourself in the music, knowing full well that all will work out at the end of the rainbow!

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