Charlotte Moore’s simplified, “concertized” version of “Finian’s Rainbow” — a slightly recast version of last year’s Off Broadway staging at her Irish Repertory Theater — fails to solve the problems associated with this musical’s troublesome book. Still, Burton Lane’s beguiling music and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s playful lyrics are glorious, loving and fun. When an incandescent Melissa Errico and a delightful Malcolm Gets are singing, one almost forgets and forgives the rambling fable and is just transported to a musical Glocca Morra.
But then the music stops and even the lithe, lovely actress and the breezy comic actor have to come down to earth and deal with a clunky, pixified, sermonizing story that encompasses racial prejudice, immigration, union organizing, the perils of credit, the tobacco industry and even the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Moore’s smart strategy is to stress the music and brush off the 1947 script as something we just get through as best we can. This what-the-heck approach works at first, making the evening a casual and affectionate musical get-together — think “Encores!” more than Goodspeed. Two onstage pianos (and an occasional guitar, harmonica or flute) make up the orchestra; the cast also is seated onstage, standing whenever called upon to be in a scene.
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A friendly narrator (David Staller, working on all charm cylinders to connect to the aud) stresses the show’s fabulist sensibility, compresses the scenes and cuts through the corn as best he can. Story centers on the arrival of Irish emigrant Finian (Milo O’Shea) and daughter Sharon (Errico) to “Missitucky.” On Finian’s heels is Og (Malcolm Gets), an increasingly mortal leprechaun in search of the pot of gold Finian pilfered back in Eire.
Sharon falls for local boy Woody (Stephen R. Buntrock), who is trying to reclaim his land from the evil, racist powers-that-be. Finian buries the gold, thinking that in America money will grow from trees.
Aud’s willingness to weather the whimsy depends entirely on the perfs. Errico and Gets, re-creating their Off Broadway roles, work wonders together and solo. Errico avoids the saccharine and never oversells a song, letting her fresh and graceful soprano speak for itself, much in the Barbara Cook simple-and-true school. Her “Look to the Rainbow” is a gentle prayer of a song, but she also shows her pluck and versatility in “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.”
Gets hits the musical and comic notes just right, making Og engaging without being too Lucky Charming. His “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” is inventive, funny and musically strong.
Buntrock is a solid, romantic tenor as Woody, especially in the seductive “Old Devil Moon.” Kimberly Dawn Neumann makes the most of her dancing role as Woody’s mute sister, Susan. John Sloman as a racist senator manages the transformation to a black man (via mask) in an inoffensive manner and with strong musical chops. O’Shea, not part of the Off Broadway production, falters a bit on a few lines but brings such a natural depth of history and character, the role seems to live deep in his bones and heart.
An additional diversion for Westport auds is the opening of the newly renovated summer theater, in its 75th year. The new year-round venue manages to maintain much of its historic “barn” look (though it had been stripped to its foundation for the $18 million rehab project). The state-of-the-art stage and new support system can make productions here more transfer-friendly, a nice option to have for outgoing a.d. Joanne Woodward and newly named successor Tazewell Thompson.