There are no ills, musical-theater-wise, that can’t be cured by sending a cornucopia of bounteous melody mixed with irrepressible twinkle-eyed wit cascading across the footlights. That’s the message to be heard at City Center this weekend, and those who hasten to the Encores! revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” will be rewarded with a pot of golden tunes.
This was the unconventional musical comedy that jolted postwar audiences back in 1947 with high spirits, extravagant comedy and political satire strong enough to land lyricist and co-librettist E.Y. Harburg on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s A-list. But Harburg’s message was sufficiently coated with Irish blarney and Burton Lane’s heart-swelling music to turn “Rainbow” into a surprise hit.
Attempts at full-scale revival over the years have been squashed by fears that the political and racial content would be either too dated or inflammatory for modern tastes. That turns out to be a load of blarney itself; adapter David Ives has removed the one line about Karl Marx and somewhat finessed the use of blackface, but the heart — and most of the jokes — in Harburg and Fred Saidy’s book remain. The humor does seem quaint at times, but that’s part of the package the authors used to sugarcoat their social messages.
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Plot tells of Irishman Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton) who steals a pot of gold and flees to Appalachia — the mythical state of Missitucky, to be exact — reasoning that if the U.S. government plants its gold in the soil of Fort Knox, he should do so, too. His feisty daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin) helps local hero Woody (Cheyenne Jackson) and his mute sister Susan-the-Silent (Alina Faye) save their patch of land from the graspin’, filibusterin’ Senator Rawkins (Philip Bosco).
Finian is chased to America by the leprechaun Og (Jeremy Bobb), who, in the absence of his gold, is turning uncomfortably mortal — especially just above the thighs. Everything turns out hunky-dory, with the leprechaun’s legendary three wishes being used to turn race relations upside down while love is liberally spread around.
The show’s most surprising element — or perhaps not — is the bite the 1947 satire retains in 2009. Senator Rawkins is the sort of lethally powerful demagogical bigot who has long disappeared from the political landscape, except in present-day Kentucky and maybe Alabama. (“I haven’t got time to read the Constitution,” he rails. “I’m too busy defendin’ it!”) Finian’s gold-fueled economic theories are not so farfetched given recent market activity, and one of the biggest laughs goes to a line about easy credit.
Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle does a good job, even if the brief rehearsal time has shortchanged the show’s heavy choreographic components. The Encores! design team provides a typically dressed-up production; Scott Lehrer’s sound is especially clear, and lighting designer Ken Billington gets special mention for contributing a simple but ah!-inducing rainbow.
The find of the production is clearly Baldwin, who gets to belt out practically every song in the first act. Hidden in replacement jobs over the past decade, the actress demonstrates full leading-lady talents here. Norton, a Tony winner last season for “The Seafarer,” demonstrates broad comic talents as Finian.
Jackson, recently of “Xanadu” and the Encores! “Damn Yankees,” provides yet another amiable portrait as the hero, even if his singing lacks the rafter-shaking properties you want from the fellow warbling “Old Devil Moon.” However, Terri White shakes the rafters of City Center — and probably Carnegie Hall around the corner — with her featured specialty “Necessity.”
Bobb, all knees and elbows in his musical debut, makes an ingratiating leprechaun, handily stopping the show with the 11 o’clock number “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” He’s matched every step of the way, literally so, by ballerina Faye who — in one of Harburg’s cleverest conceits — dances her lines throughout the proceedings.
Frequent Encores! player Bosco lends his presence as the bigoted Senator. But while the musicals-in-concert format is built around the optional use of scripts, the highly accomplished thesp is the one person onstage who buries his nose in his (not many) lines, without expending much ability. Ruben Santiago-Hudson fairly brightens the stage as he sings, clowns and even dances in a charming performance as Billboard.
All this would be meaningless without those glorious songs by Lane and Harburg. “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca-Morra” retain a certain degree of popularity, but “Something Sort of Grandish,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “That Great Come and Get It Day” and “If This Isn’t Love” are batted across the Encores! footlights by music director Rob Berman and his merry band like so many home runs. And let’s hear a warm word for Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker, whose 60-year-old orchestrations wrap the auditorium in glory from that first harp cascade in the overture.