Finian’s Rainbow—the 1947 musical in which a horny leprechaun chases after anything in a skirt, a mute ballerina communicates via interpretive dance, and a racist white senator is turned black by a magic pot of gold—is one hot plate of crazy. And yet in a world where the Birthers are being taken semi-seriously, who couldn’t use a pot of magic gold or two? It turns out that, for all its charming loopiness, Yip Harbug, Fred Saidy, and Burton Lane’s show—essentially a dream vision of an America without racism—is still a provocative work. This marvelous, slightly unhinged revival, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, succeeds because it refuses to wink at the material or treat it as quaint.
Two Irish émigrés, the mischievous, tippling Finian (Jim Norton, in a springy, adamantly untwinkly performance) and his plucky daughter, Sharon (Kate Baldwin), show up in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, to execute a get-rich-eventually scheme. They’re welcomed by the locals, black and white alike, among them labor organizer and town hottie Woody (Cheyenne Jackson) and the sharecroppers who make their living in the valley’s tobacco fields (their de facto mother figure is the hip-rolling, straight-talking Dottie, played by ball-of-fire Terri White). Finian and Sharon end up on the very bad side of the bigoted Senator Rawkins (David Schramm), the fat cat who will soon become a hepcat (played by Chuck Cooper)—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Carlyle and his cast run wild with the book’s fanciful, sweetly Utopian spirit, but they also hit the play’s satirical notes dead-on. (When one of the blustery white authority figures claims the now-black senator has been “demoted,” the line pierces like a lancet.) In a change from the original staging, the new, improved version of Rawkins is played by a black actor instead of a white actor in blackface. It’s a bold, necessary adjustment, just one way in which this show’s pleasures are doled out in go-for-broke splashes instead of tasteful dabs. The musical numbers are colorful though never garish—the dancers, in their whirling circle skirts and drapey trousers, make for a cheerful, retro spectacle. Admittedly, some of the magic dust wears off in the second act: There isn’t much of a plot, just a series of situations on which to hang songs. But what songs! Beyond the love-as-witchcraft sultriness of “Old Devil Moon,” there’s the wistful beauty of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” a ballad that speaks of homesickness not for a specific geographical location but for an elusive state of being—a place we’d happily put on a map, if only we could.
Kate Baldwin on the Play’s Improbable Return
St. James Theatre