'Finian's Rainbow'

Blissful surrender is the only option.

What better time for a show that makes gentle mockery of that incurable habit of building the illusion of wealth on nothing more than a dream and a credit line, while also offering the rose-tinted consolation that such folly will turn out fine in the end? But it’s not so much the uncanny appropriateness of its pixified fairy tale as the enveloping warmth of Burton Lane’s melodies and the spry wit of Yip Harburg’s lyrics that make “Finian’s Rainbow” such an infectious charmer. Rather than try to get around the 1947 musical’s daffy story by hammering the social satire, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle and his winning cast simply embrace its quaint idiosyncrasies.

An expanded version of the Encores! concert staging from March, the production pretty much banishes concerns about the over-complicated plotting and reform-minded preachiness of Harburg and Fred Saidy’s book, skillfully adapted by Harburg archivist Arthur Perlman. From the moment music director Rob Berman raises his lighter-than-air baton on the show’s soaring overture, blissful surrender is the only option.

A patchwork scrim reveals John Lee Beatty’s Technicolor-hued picture-book set depicting a verdant valley in the mythical state of Missitucky, where rascally Irishman Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton) arrives with daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin). Armed with a pot of gold “borrowed” from leprechaun Og (Christopher Fitzgerald), Finian’s plan is to bury the loot in the shadow of Fort Knox, then watch it multiply.

The McLonergans bail out a community of poor sharecroppers whose land is threatened by the filibustering machinations of bigoted Sen. Rawkins (David Schramm). Sharon falls instantly in love with local boy Woody (Cheyenne Jackson) and inadvertently turns the white senator black (with Chuck Cooper stepping into the role) via one of the pot of gold’s three wishes. Meanwhile, deprived of his magic, Og attempts to locate the treasure and halt his gradual transformation to human form.

If all this sounds like a crock of pure escapist whimsy, well, it is. But the humor is surprisingly durable, while the jokes about race relations, suspect banking practices, corrupt politics and rampant consumer lust still hit the target. Intermission is bookended by matching anthems to our acquisitive culture, with “That Great ‘Come-and-Get-It’ Day” exhorting the Rainbow Valley residents to buy now, pay later, while “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” illustrates the boost in status a little shopping can bring.

Much of the credit for the revival’s appeal goes to astute casting. Norton made a memorably sly and sozzled Dubliner in “The Seafarer” two seasons back, and he delivers a more benign version of that twinkly stereotype here, dignifying it with soulfulness, nimble physicality and a gentle comic touch.

Jackson’s supple voice and relaxed leading-man confidence are a smooth fit for Woody, while Baldwin, mostly seen on Broadway up to now in secondary roles or replacement casts, is a revelation. A Maureen O’Hara-type beauty with an agreeably feisty manner and a crystal-clear soprano, she makes gorgeous work of her wistful solo “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and sings gloriously with Jackson and other cast members on such standards as “Old Devil Moon” and “Look to the Rainbow.”

Fitzgerald’s vaudevillian musical comedy skills are put to excellent use as the Cole Porter-quoting Og, his kelly-green suit steadily shrinking as his mortality takes hold. He also socks across the hilarious “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” an unapologetic confession of romantic opportunism that exemplifies Harburg’s facility for clever rhymes: “Ev’ry femme that flutters by me/Is a flame that must be fanned/When I can’t fondle the hand I’m fond of/I fondle the hand at hand.”

Terri White scores big in the showstopper “Necessity,” a fired-up spiritual about the burdens of work. Schramm makes Rawkins an amusing blowhard (“The festering tides of radicalism are upon us!”), while Cooper is a fine physical match as his black doppelganger, turning on some Cab Calloway showmanship in the rousing quartet number, “The Begat.” Guy Davis blows sweet harmonica on “Dance of the Golden Crock,” while Alina Faye, as Woody’s mute sister, Susan, responds in lissome ballet to his every phrase.

With a nod to the exhilarating moves of original choreographer Michael Kidd, Carlyle blends classical with Celtic with hoedown to buoyant effect. That eclecticism perfectly complements the textural richness of the music, which folds together gospel, blues, traditional folk strains, mellow jazz and show tunes into one of Broadway’s most consistently melodious scores, heard here in Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker’s lush original orchestrations.

Scott Lehrer’s crisp sound design, Toni-Leslie James’ characterful costumes and Ken Billington’s sugar-kissed lighting complete the enchanting package.

Finian's Rainbow

St. James Theater; 1,701 seats; $120 top

Production

A David Richenthal, Jack Viertel, Alan D. Marks, Michael Speyer, Bernard Abrams, David M. Milch, Stephen Moore, Debbie Bisno/Myla Lerner, Jujamcyn Theaters presentation, in association with Melly Garcia, Jamie Deroy, Jon Bierman, Richard Driehaus, Kevin Spirtas, Jay Binder, Stage Ventures 2009 Limited Partnership, of a musical in two acts with music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy. Book adaptation, Arthur Perlman; based on the New York City Center Encores! presentation, adapted by David Ives. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Music supervision and vocal arrangements, Rob Berman.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Scott Lehrer; hair, wigs and makeup, Wendy Parson; original orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett, Don Walker; music coordination, Seymour Red Press; technical supervision, Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate choreographer, Parker Esse; associate producers, Andrew Hartman, Gail Lawrence; executive producer, Nicole Kastrinos; production stage manager, Tripp Phillips. Opened Oct. 29, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Finian McLonergan - Jim Norton Sharon McLonergan - Kate Baldwin Woody Mahoney - Cheyenne Jackson Bill Rawkins - Chuck Cooper Og - Christopher Fitzgerald Sunny - Guy Davis Susan Mahoney - Alina Faye Sheriff - Brian Reddy Sen. Rawkins - David Schramm Dottie - Terri White Buzz Collins - William Youmans
With: Aaron Bantum, Tanya Birl, Christopher Borger, Meggie Cansler, Bernard Dotson, Leslie Donna Flesner, Sara Jean Ford, Taylor Frey, Lisa Gajda, Kearran Giovanni, Tim Hartman, Laren Lim Jackson, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevin Ligon, Monica L. Patton, Joe Aaron Reid, Devin Richards, Steve Schepis, Rashidra Scott, Brian Sears, Paige Simunovich, James Stovall, Elisa Van Duyne

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