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A CurtainUp Review
By Brad Bradley
Finian's Rainbow has been considered a classic musical since bursting onto Broadway in 1947 with what remains one of the best theater scores of the entire century. While the story of a Celtic codger (Finian) and his winsome grown daughter Sharon as new arrivals in the fictional American southern state of "Missitucky" was on one level a very welcome escapist tonic, the material also had something pretty revolutionary to say. Its unequivocal message condemning racial prejudice was comfortably couched inside a tale involving a pot of gold, a lovesick leprechaun who is gradually turning into a mortal, and a bigoted politician who is transformed into a black person owing to an accidentally applied magic wish. This unlikely concoction apparently went out of style as the civil rights movement went into high gear, for commercial producers have rarely tackled the material. (For the record, the City Center did present three very limited-run recreations of the Broadway original, the last appearing in 1967. And, a belated film version was released in 1968, although it did not receive a great welcome).
The Irish Repertory Theatre, which first approached the show last June as a one-performance concert for its annual fund-raising event, has done the general public a great favor in bringing the musical to its home stage for a general run. Director Charlotte Moore shrewdly has continued to call the version "a concert adaptation," but don't be fooled. This production feels quite complete, and no scripts are used on stage. However, the sometimes clunky book of the original has been streamlined, and a narrator has been added to fill in the gaps. In that capacity, David Staller is a smooth and genial storyteller, employed somewhat like the Stage Manager in Our Town, supplementing his direct talks to the audience with various character appearances, especially as a member of the community. This device actually enhances the effectiveness of the fantasy, because the audience is able to suspend disbelief much more than it would in a conventional staging.
The musical score has been reduced to two onstage grand pianos, most capably rendered by Mark Hartman and Mark Janus. And the reduced arrangements are very much on the mark, allowing the audience at he intimate IRT to really enjoy the music and clearly hear the lyrics, especially in the fine voices of Melissa Errico (as Sharon) and Malcolm Gets (as Og, the leprechaun), who get to sing many of the lovely Lane and Harburg songs, including "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?", "Look to the Rainbow," "Something Sort of Grandish," and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love." Errico, happily retained from last year's benefit, and Gets, who first took on his role in a Los Angeles concert version seven years ago, both are wonderfully fresh presences that are perfect for the material. They obviously enjoy being on stage together again after their brief run in the failed Broadway musical Amour in the fall of 2002.
In the important role of Finian is the excellent character actor Jonathan Freeman. He precisely delivers the twinkling devilishness that the role requires. Strangely, this title character has no solo, although director Moore wisely has assigned him several songs as a supporting voice, and Freeman's presence always is an asset.
As Sharon's beau Woody, Max Von Essen is both manly and charming, and sings winningly in several songs including "If This Isn't Love." In smaller roles, Terri White, Kimberly Dawn Newmann, and John Sloman are standouts. The rest of the ensemble, while small in number, is most effective. Although clearly on a limited budget, house designers James Morgan (sets), David Toser (costumes) and Mary Jo Dondlinger (lights) have done a fine job of imbuing the production with colorful flavor and spark without going for visual opulence that would overwhelm both the material and the intimate space. This Finian's Rainbow, while compact, is, to echo co-creator Harburg, "something sort of grandish."
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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