Friday, October 30, 2009

Finian's Rainbow (The SOB Review)

Finian's Rainbow (The SOB Review) - St. James Theatre, New York, New York

**1/2 (out of ****)

You have to hand it to Warren Carlyle for taking that inspirational tune "Look to the Rainbow" to heart. He's practically pulled out every conceivable stop for his enjoyable and entertaining Broadway revival of the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg musical Finian's Rainbow in the hunt for his very own pot of gold.

To say Carlyle comes up with a silver instead is not to denigrate his Herculean efforts that includes his mesmerizing choreography. It's just that silver is a tad bit tarnished with verdigris.

The good news is that on Broadway, his Finian's Rainbow is much more vibrant than the concert version he mounted earlier this year as part of New York City Center's Encores! series.

It doesn't hurt that Finian's Rainbow consistently hits the jackpot with one of musical theatre's most divine scores. Apart from "Look to the Rainbow," it's nearly impossible to shake from your mind Lane and Yarburg's highly hummable "Necessity," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra" and the spellbinding "Old Devil Moon." It's easy to imagine that Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker's full and lush original orchestrations (in the pit, no less) have never sounded better. Each gem is delivered with a flawless verve by the show's top-drawer cast.

In fact, if the luminescent Kate Baldwin could shine any brighter, her Sharon McLonergan would never be able to see that devil moon. Radiating warmth and grace, Baldwin possesses an exquisite voice perfectly suited to the magical score.

As her love interest Woody Mahoney, Cheyenne Jackson beguiles through silky-smooth vocals of his own. With guitar slung over his shoulders throughout, Jackson refreshingly imbues his Woody with a requisite innocence.

In the role of the transformed Bill Rawkins, a bigoted white southern senator who's become black by virtue of Sharon's ill-timed wish, Chuck Cooper soulfully finds the depths of the Deep South via his ironic tune "The Begat."

The impish Christopher Fitzgerald improves on the role of the leprechaun Og, which he's taken over since City Center and in the process manages to charm his ever-shrinking pants off the audience. With his commanding presence, particularly his hilarious rendition of "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," it's a wonder Fitzgerald still hasn't lucked out with a leading Rialto role of his own.

Then there's the awe-inspiring Terri White. Blessed with a booming, yet beautiful voice, White makes a most triumphant return to the stage out of pure necessity, literally and figuratively. While her backstory is enough to have you cheering, it's White's ability to effortlessly hit this one so far out of the park that she comes close to stopping the show. Irish eyes are smiling on her as she follows an amazing personal arc of a genuine rainbow and realizes her own dreams in the process.

Special praise certainly must be reserved for the wondrous Jim Norton. This Tony-winning actor not only grounds the entire proceedings, but he does so with magnetic charm and easy humor. With rascally eyes twinkling throughout, you'd be forgiven for thinking him a leprechaun himself. You can't help but wish him good fortune for his contributions.

The same goes for Warren Carlyle, too. As I noted above, he's pulled out nearly every stop in making this Finian's Rainbow as good as a revival as this dated show can possibly get. Well, almost. John Lee Beatty's two-dimensional scenic design may be verdant as kelly-colored grass, but it's as if Carlyle spent all of his green on everything but the cheap-looking set.

Sad to say, there's also the book. The problematic, silly book. As magnificent as the score, cast and choreography make this Finian's Rainbow soar, the libretto originally written by Harburg and Fred Saidy that's been adapted by Arthur Perlman (the original adaptation for New York City Center Encores! was written by David Ives) remains as creaky as ever. By cramming in far too many disparate themes -- including a noble one on race that was once way ahead of its time -- the book remains quaint at best. It's so clunky that it threatens to fall under its own weight.

Thus it's a tribute to Carlyle and company that the overall production manages to stand, even if tilting a bit precariously. In their quest for gold, Carlyle and his cast's yeomen efforts have still managed to find something truly precious at the end Finian's Rainbow.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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