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Finian’s Rainbow

The 1947 musical morality fable "Finian's Rainbow" gets a generally sunny, musically upbeat reworking at the Coconut Grove Playhouse before heading to Cleveland and a planned Broadway transfer early in 2000. Peter Stone's new libretto moves quickly and confidently through a bramble of subplots, streamlining the original without changing its overall appearance or magically romantic spirit.

With:
Finian McLonergan - Brian Murray
Senator Billy Bob Rawkins - Austin Pendleton
Sharon McLonergan - Kate Jennings
Grant Ogh - Denis O'Hare
Susan Mahoney - Tina Ou
Woody Mahoney - J. Robert Spencer
Buzz Collins - Don Stephenson
Howard Franklin - Joseph Webster
Upstairs Maid - Terri White

The 1947 musical morality fable “Finian’s Rainbow” gets a generally sunny, musically upbeat reworking at the Coconut Grove Playhouse before heading to Cleveland and a planned Broadway transfer early in 2000. Peter Stone’s new libretto moves quickly and confidently through a bramble of subplots, streamlining the original without changing its overall appearance or magically romantic spirit. The task isn’t finished, however; neither Stone nor director Lonny Price has found a comfortable timbre in their rephrasing of E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy’s forthright sociopolitical evangelism.

The revival shakes off the show’s dated outlook via Marguerite Derricks’ vivacious choreography and Ralph Burns’ cleverly modernized orchestrations. Both punctuate Stone’s tongue-in-cheek handling of the fantasy and romantic elements, which satisfy the show’s billing as “a musical for the family.”

The satire of political and racial issues moves to the fore after intermission as the bigoted political boss Sen. Billy Bob Rawkins (Austin Pendleton) disrupts the social harmony of Rainbow Valley. Pendleton and Don Stephenson as his chief henchman deliver venomous pipsqueak versions of the Boss Hogg (TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard”) stereotype, while carrying big sticks.

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Stone won’t be accused of sugar-coating “Finian’s Rainbow” a la last spring’s “Annie Get Your Gun.” On the contrary, the vivid racist caricatures of Rawkins and his minions, along with occasional “Li’l Abner”-ish stereotyping of the valley residents, disturb the rhythms of the broader romantic fantasy.

Pendleton convincingly depicts the senator’s change of heart when, turned black by magic, he experiences bigotry firsthand. The scene represents Stone and director Price’s major change to the book. The senator’s conversion solves a credibility problem at the show’s thematic climax, but hasn’t been dovetailed into either the setup or denouement.

Story opens in a travelogue over the overture by a sharp 18-piece orchestra under Eric Stern. The journey depicts Finian McLonergan (Brian Murray) and his daughter Sharon (Kate Jennings Grant) en route from Ireland throughout America (including some odd backtracking) before arriving in Rainbow Valley near Fort Knox. There, Finian gives farmer Woody Mahoney (J. Robert Spencer) the cash needed to prevent the auction of land to Sen. Rawkins for back taxes.

Finian gets a small plot of land from Woody for his favor. There, he buries a pot of magical gold he’s stolen from the leprechaun Ogh back in Ireland. Soon, Finian is playing cupid for his daughter and Woody, while awaiting the gold’s magic to spread prosperity to the poor sharecroppers throughout the valley.

Described as Missitucky in the original, the state isn’t identified here — one of several topical period references apparently jettisoned by Stone in favor of others more familiar to contemporary ears. Some original topical jokes left in Harburg’s lyrics (including one about then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower) slip by unnoticed by most.

Murray delivers a warm, congenial performance as Finian, speckled with a subtle brand of wit. Grant and Spencer bring rustic qualities to the romantic leads, exhibiting real polish in their musical turns. Grant opens the show with a lovely, restrained vocal arrangement of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” following with Spencer for the duet “Old Devil Moon.” Their “If This Isn’t Love” builds to a finale with Murray and the whole company.

Denis O’Hare gives the production its comic spark as the leprechaun Ogh, hoping to reclaim his stolen gold before losing his emerald color, immortality and magical powers. The humor lies more in O’Hare’s brisk, boyish delivery than the jokes themselves, and he handles the tune “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near)” with aplomb. It’s sung to Tina Ou as farmer Woody’s speechless sister Susan, who communicates through choreographer Derricks’ imaginative dance.

“Finian’s Rainbow” further capitalizes on Derricks’ choreography and Burns’ orchestrations in a Supremes-styled “Necessity” led by deep-voiced Terri White, a gospel-flavored “Begat” and the gaudily becostumed production number “When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor.” The still-joyous score propelled the Grove’s largely black-tie opening night crowd to enthusiastic response, particularly for O’Hare and Grant’s “Something Sort of Grandish” and the first act curtain-closer , “That Great Come and Get It Day.”

Production values are enhanced for the regional tryout at the Grove, said to be budgeted at $ 1.3 million. Costumes, lighting and sound are first-rate.

Loren Sherman’s scenery evokes the sharecroppers’ Rainbow Valley in multicolored pastel rags representing the sky, plus a large tree and giant-sized foliage. But clunky wagons representing fallen leaves, which transport singers during their vocal reveries, deserve to stay in Miami.

Finian's Rainbow

Coconut Grove Playhouse, Coconut Grove, Fla.; 1,100 seats; $40 top

Production: A Coconut Grove Playhouse presentation, by special arrangement with Rodger Hess Prods., of a musical in two acts with music by Burton Lane; book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, revised by Peter Stone; and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed by Lonny Price.

Creative: Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. Musical director, Eric Stern. Sets, Loren Sherman; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Phil Monat; sound, Kurt Fischer; orchestrations, Ralph Burns; production stage manager, Neil Krasnow. Coconut Grove Playhouse producing artistic director, Arnold Mittelman. Opened, reviewed Oct. 23, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast: Finian McLonergan - Brian Murray
Senator Billy Bob Rawkins - Austin Pendleton
Sharon McLonergan - Kate Jennings
Grant Ogh - Denis O'Hare
Susan Mahoney - Tina Ou
Woody Mahoney - J. Robert Spencer
Buzz Collins - Don Stephenson
Howard Franklin - Joseph Webster
Upstairs Maid - Terri White
With: Kate Baldwin, Andrew Boyer, Cyrus Akeem Brooks, Angela Brydon, Dioni Michelle Collins, Kim Craven, Christopher F. Davis, Stephanie Fittro, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Derric Harris, Scott Hislop, Denis Jones, Trent Armand Kendall, Vicky Lambert, Rosa Janae Lee, James Ludwig, Brandi Chavonne Massey, Wes Pope, Eric Riley.

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