Finian’s Rainbow, directed by Charlotte Moore and currently being presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in revival, premiered on Broadway in 1947. The fact that it ran for over 700 performances indicates that it had found a home in the hearts of a diversity of Americans who were ready for the oppressive “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws to be given a hearty smackdown.
The show’s maverick, forward-thinking theme that unity in love has the power to overcome bigotry, racism and corruption sounded a clarion call to arms that appealed to many. Audiences were uplifted at the possibility that one’s inner nature, not outward appearance, determined one’s greatness. The plot reinforced that citizens’ greatest social benefit lay in their working together as equals, linked but not ranked.
Though for a time the musical was considered dated and was rarely performed, the current political and social climate favors the Irish Repertory Theatre’s exceptional revival. Lines have been cut and the show has been intimately tailored to a smaller stage by paring down the number of performers. A side effect is that the cast’s sterling acting and musical talents elucidate and evoke the themes with greater power.
Finian and daughter Sharon are immigrants from Ireland. Finian is attracted to America’s Rainbow Valley, Missatucky (Klan country is inferred by the fictional state), for a number of reasons which hide his ulterior motive to bury a pot of gold stolen from a Leprechaun so that it can grow and multiply. Sharon and Finian meet a group of multiracial sharecroppers led by Woody and under financial siege from a corrupt politician (Senator Rawkins), and his thuggish sheriff and lackey. Finian helps out the sharecroppers and when the Leprechaun shows up to reclaim his gold, magic and mayhem reverse the order of the political universe and there is love, transformation, redemption and an end to corruption in the valley, where Finian and Sharon have managed to spread hope. Though the material pot of gold has turned to dross and the Leprechaun has lost his magical powers, human love provides a ready substitute.
The simplicity and shining, thematic beauty of the presentation uplifts and reminds us to live the golden rule, which is the real “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. That golden theme is vital for us during this time of divisiveness, when powerful voices, clamoring against empathy, distract us from standing in one another’s shoes. Indeed, unity in love has special currency for us today when intolerance would attempt to raise its grotesque head and as a point of influence, consolidate power over a citizenry who are as financially troubled as the black and white sharecroppers of Rainbow Valley, the fanciful-metaphoric setting of Finian’s Rainbow.
The director and cast have wisely kept the slenderized production intimate and “close to the hearth,” helped by the functional and handsome artistic design (set, costume, lighting, hair) and fine musical direction by Geraldine Anello (who also plays piano), and music supervision by John Bell. The character portrayals are down-to-earth and heartfelt amidst an energy and joyful vibrance that is contagious and encourages us to soar spiritually.
All of the principals just nail it. The entire cast easily navigates the stage in the dance numbers, thanks to the versatile choreography of Barry McNabb. The ensemble pieces, which require dynamism, are rendered with care so that the ironies (of economic classism, racism and injustice) are borne on the wings of the fabulous multi-genre musical score (effected with precision by harpist Karen Lindquist, violinist Janey Choi, and cellist Melanie Mason) and the darkly humorous lyrics.
As a result we are able to well appreciate how the originators – the book is by E.Y. Harburg & Fred Saidy, the lyrics by Harburg, and the music by Burton Lane – targeted racism and classism with just enough grace to smash all comers who would evoke dismissive pretension and reduce the musical to a “fun” evening to forget about later. Not that this resplendent production isn’t highly entertaining. It is. But with Moore’s fine tuning, it is much, much more. It is a thoughtful, profound revival especially for our time. The director and cast have obviously considered the musical’s cultural themes and taken great care to tweak them according to ongoing political and social trends. We are not only gently prodded, but seared by the call to hope and to value what matters most.
The production is beautifully without ego and self-importance. That’s is what I loved most about Moore’s revival. The principals do not grandstand, as occurred in a revival I had seen on Broadway. The effect is stunning. It allows the musical’s true tenets to shine.
Melissa Errico (Sharon) and Jeremiah James (Woody) as the lovers shepherd the cast, who warmly support them with impeccable characterizations and thrilling ensemble pieces like “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day” and the brilliant “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.” The divine Angela Grovey as Sally Ann and the ensemble roust out the glory with the clever “Necessity.” The soul-transformed Senator Rawkins (Dewey Caddell is just great when he calls down his corrupt former buddies at the conclusion) and the Gospeleers (William Bellamy, Din Griffin, Kyle Taylor Parker)make beautiful harmonies (literal and metaphoric) in “The Begat.”
Errico’s Sharon is at once sweetly disarming and wise, and James’s Woody is a combination of masculine, tender and sensual. They sing their duet, the sensational “Old Devil Moon,” with a demure sensitivity that reveals the first blush of love. Their exceptional voices obliterated for me all prior notions of how the duet should be sung. In another revival I saw, the song was rather belted for the sake of the audience – a veritable park and bark; the characters didn’t relate to each other by modulating the volume and tone as did Errico and James, who actually looked into each others’ eyes mesmerized.
Finian (the blustery, crusty, chipper Ken Jennings), around whom the show pivots, kicks up his heels and leads with enthusiasm throughout. He is facilely antic during the Finale. And Og (Max Sheldon is adorable and spontaneously exuberant) is truly other-worldly here. The tweaking of his character to interact with an audience member at the finish of the resonant and sublime “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” is a bullseye.
This production has been extended once and runs until 29 January. I was told it would cost an untold amount of money to bring it to another venue, which means that you will not see this revival ever again with this cast, unless Finian spins out a miracle and Og is able to contact supernatural powers of grace and love to materialize another pot of gold to ransom the show beyond its final performance date.
Ah, well. I am just humbly grateful I was able to experience the hope and the wisdom of this wonderful musical, which I am ashamed to admit I completely underestimated and only got “in part” when I saw it over seven years ago. That most probably is because I was younger and sillier, and because it was not this adaptation by the incredible Charlotte Moore.
Finian, Og, Susan, Woody and their friends of Rainbow Valley are singing and dancing with joy at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director; Ciarán O’Reilly, Producing Director), located on 132 W 22nd Street, NY. You may purchase tickets here. If you are fortunate enough to get one, you will experience an amazing evening you will not soon forget.