‘Something Sort of Grandish” (to borrow one of the song titles) has happened on Broadway. “Finian’s Rainbow” has been treated to its first major Broadway revival since it first opened in 1947. That’s a long time to wait to see an American musical theater treasure and to rehear one of the best scores (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg) ever written for a Broadway show. Sure, the plot by Harburg and Fred Saidy, about a rascally old Irishman, Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton), who plans to get rich and secure his daughter Sharon’s (Kate Baldwin) future by coming to America with a magic crock of gold he has stolen from a leprechaun, is just a lot of malarkey. Finian’s goal is Fort Knox but he settles for Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, where he buries it. And don’t you know that anyone who makes a wish while standing over the gold…well, there you have it.
Oh, there’s a love story involving Finian’s gorgeous red-haired daughter, Sharon, who can out-chirp the Glocca Morra bird, and the good-looking local hunk, Woody Mahoney (Cheyenne Jackson), who sings but also carries around a guitar that he hasn’t learned to play yet. But best of all, there’s Og (Christopher Fitzgerald), the in-pursuit leprechaun who, because he no longer has possession of his crock of gold, is slowly turning human — and that means falling in love.
But wait! There’s that problematic secondary plot that pits the local sharecroppers against the blatantly racist Senator Rawkins (David Schramm), and his cadre of corrupt local officials who are in cahoots to find the gold and take the sharecroppers’ land away from them. For years, this part of the plot, in which the Senator is turned into a black man as the result of Sharon’s inadvertent wish, was considered to be in questionable taste. In reality and in the light of last year’s City Center Encore Series semi-staged production, the book, as revised by adaptor Arthur Perlman (and also David Ives for the City Center Encores production) is not only timely but topical, particularly as it astutely references banks and Wall Street. All this has led happily to this full Broadway staging.
Despite a few changes in the cast who appeared at City Center, the leads are still with us and the present company of more than 30 is as appealing as can be. They provide the kind of memorable family entertainment that is as good as gold. Norton, a 2008 Tony winner for “The Seafarer,” proves he can carry a tune as well as a pint as the incorrigible but loveable Finian. Baldwin has a gorgeous soprano voice (“How Are Things in Glocca Mora”) and is simply radiant as Sharon. It’s no wonder that Woody, as played with great charm and brio by Jackson, is bowled over the minute he sees her.
When it comes to stealing the show, I’d have to admit it is being done by the beguiling and comical Fitzgerald, as Og the leprechaun. His growing humanity (as his pants keep shrinking) and his sudden interest in the opposite sex (“When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love”) is quite “splendish.” Originally Senator Rawkins was played by a white actor who reappeared in black-face, a gimmick that was offensive to many people. One obvious fix is having white actor David Schramm cleverly replaced by black actor Chuck Cooper in a transition that works beautifully. As Rawkins, Cooper brings down the house with wittily biblical “The Begat,” as harmoniously backed up by the Three Gospeleers.
Another delicate issue regarding race is delectably handled by making Rawkins’ white racist crony, Buzz Collins (William Youmans), into a supercilious fool while also reconsidering the role of the black servant, Howard (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), who is now a college student. This gives Jones the opportunity to go hilariously overboard, as he mockingly affects a wealth of exaggerated motions and stereotypical mannerisms as he serves the Senator a drink.
Your heart will leap from the start of the overture, as played by two dozen musicians who give us a taste of the hit-upon-hit songs that are coming our way. Purists will undoubtedly notice and complain that “Old Devil Moon” has been excised from the overture. But that leaves Baldwin and Jackson to introduce that great bluesy ballad. This is one musical that is drenched in song, each one rapturously sung and orchestrated. Part of the magic of the show is how the songs are part of a world in which people are as apt or motivated to sing and dance for no other reason than that they want to. Woody’s sister, Susan (Alina Faye) is mute but communicates solely through her dancing, which, by the way, is lovely to watch.
Wouldn’t you know that the sharecroppers are blessed with wonderful voices and lend a hand in the rapturous “Look to the Rainbow,” “If This Isn’t Love,” and “That Great Come and Get-It Day.” A show-stopper if there ever was one is “Necessity,” as delivered by Dottie (Terri White), a sharecropper who justifies the willingness of the sharecroppers to grow tobacco (amidst a few ironic coughs) for survival. If you follow theater news, you may have read about White who, although she has had a life in theater, was homeless before this show and at times slept in the park. Wait until Tony Award time and just see if she isn’t nominated for her impressive performance.
Warren Carlyle, who takes the credit for both the direction and choreography, has done well in both departments. He injects the obligatory jig to the dances and brings a refreshing jolt to the action. The bright costumes by Toni-Leslie James compliment the rainbow as does Ken Billington’s lighting.
The only miscalculation in this otherwise blissful production is the on-the-cheap unit setting which, as designed by the usually brilliant John Lee Beatty, literally seems to give the message: we didn’t expect to be around very long so why bother. If the 17 producers were smart, they would see to it that a lovelier and less tacky-looking setting was designed quickly and installed before word-of-mouth gets around. Everything else, however, is simply “grandish.” ****
“Finian’s Rainbow,” through Sunday, January 17. St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street. $50 to $120. 212-239-6200. Discounted tickets available at playbill.com.