Friday, October 09, 2009

Finian's Rainbow Revival: Finding The Sweet Pot

Finian's Rainbow Revival: Finding The Sweet Pot

When the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg musical Finian's Rainbow first arched over the Great White Way in 1947, it was ahead of its time in challenging the deeply-held racial prejudices, not only the Deep South, but throughout American society.

Considering the times, this was one audacious effort.

It was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming a Brooklyn Dodger. It was just a year before Senator Strom Thurmond waged a racially-fueled, independent run for the White House as part of the States-Rights Democratic Party, winning four states. It was seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. It was 18 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured no one would be disenfranchised on the basis of their skin color. And it was 21 years before the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr. would be indefinitely on hold when an assassin's bullet felled him.

With Finian's Rainbow lampooning racist elected officials, along with its highly memorable score -- including such beloved tunes as "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Old Devil Moon" -- the musical became a solid hit after opening at 46th Street Theatre (currently Richard Rodgers Theatre), running for an amazing 725 performances.

Directed by Bretaigne Windust, the tuner scored Tony Awards for the late, great choreographer Michael Kidd, for David Wayne's portrayal of the leprechaun named Og, and also for the show's conductor and musical director Milton Rosenstock. The production also starred Albert Sharpe as Finian McLonergan, Ella Logan as his daughter Sharon, and Donald Richards as Woody Mahoney.

Now, some 62 years later with, thankfully, a vastly different landscape in which the racial divide has been forever bridged, Finian's Rainbow is back on Broadway at the St. James Theatre where it began previews just yesterday. This time, the cast is headed by the brilliant Jim Norton (Tony-winner for The Seafarer, 2007-08) in the title role, the gorgeous Kate Baldwin as Sharon, and the studly Cheyenne Jackson as Woody. All are reprising the roles they created earlier this year at New York City Center Encores!

They'll be joined by Christopher Fitzgerald as Og, Chuck Cooper, William Youmans, Alina Faye, Brian Reddy, Guy Davis, Terri White and David Schramm, among others, under Warren Carlyle's direction and choreography. It's been reported that this will be a much more realized production than the concert version audiences saw last March.

Aside from the initial 1947-48 production, New York City Center quite curiously has figured prominently in each of the subsequent three revivals for Finian's Rainbow right up through the current one.

The first revival was a brief 15-show stint in 1955 at City Center in which Will Mahoney was Tony-nominated for his portrayal of Finian. Tony-winning actress Helen Gallagher played Sharon alongside a young Merv Griffin as Woody in his only Broadway credit.

The next Finian's Rainbow revival enjoyed a one-week engagement at the 46th Street Theatre during the late spring of 1960 after being transferred from City Center. Directed and choreographed by Herbert Ross, the production starred Bobby Howes (Finian), Jeannie Carson (Sharon), Biff McGuire (Woody) and Howard Morris (Og). For trivia nuts, you'll delight in knowing that Anita Alvarez starred in each of the first three productions, portraying Susan in all of them.

After catching the City Center concert version last March, I noted how I enjoyed the terrific individual performances but lamented that Harburg and Fred Saidy' s "ridiculously creaky book reads more like a relic." Fortunately, one of Steve On Broadway's trusted eyes and ears at the initial preview told me, "It's a wonderful production."

Instead of just another sentimental journey, can the Finian's Rainbow revival find anything akin to that audaciously sweet pot of gold it originally found 62 years ago? Find out when I post my SOB Review shortly after the revival's October 29 opening.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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