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Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets
in Finian's Rainbow
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Wit and imagination did it for the best 20th-century lyricists. Irving Caesar may never have gotten farther south than Battery Park but he wrote "Swanee" to George Gershwin's jaunty melody and sold millions of sheet-music copies. E.Y. Harburg had never been to France when he wrote "April in Paris" with Vernon Duke and thereby posited the still-strong theory that April, not May, is the better month for tourists to descend on that town. Harburg didn't know very much about Ireland firsthand, either, when in 1947 he and Burton Lane polished off the score of Finian's Rainbow; he did know that "there" rhymed with "Kildare," and that was all he needed to know to get the haunting "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" going.

Not that perfect rhymes were a necessity for Harburg -- who, in the show's "Necessity," wipes his hands of the notion, insisting that "There's nothing lower than less unless it's necessity." If this nimble versifier/poet wanted to rhyme "William Tell" with "adorable," he went ahead and did it, coining "adorabelle." That's the sort of hairpin he was. Harburg was also a puckish activist, the kind who could plug socialist ideals and at the same time rib them cunningly in songs such as "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich." (This was the fellow who, riding on a chum's yacht when a larger yacht passed by, shook his fist at the bigger vessel and blared, "Comes the revolution!")

Since Finian's Rainbow is shot through with that sort of twinkling merriment, and since Burton Lane's score is effortlessly tuneful and endlessly inventive, Finian's Rainbow remains a buoyant treat -- and it's sufficiently served in Charlotte Moore's vest-pocket production for the Irish Repertory Theatre. The 15-member company sings the score with the joy and precision of a heavenly choir at a picnic. Included in the saucy ensemble is Mark Hartman, the show's musical director, who sits at one of the two onstage pianos; Mark Janas, an equally adept plunker, is at the facing-upstage instrument. It's undoubtedly Hartman who brilliantly reduced the overture from the original Robert Russell Bennett-Don Walker orchestrations and who assiduously sees to it the soloists and the ensemble do right by Harburg and Lane. Bravo to him.

Though Moore's venture is billed as a concert adaptation, it isn't strictly that. The script has been edited, and an inserted narrator (David Staller) gets to say things like, "It's the next afternoon." Nevertheless, the cast has committed everything they say and sing to memory. True, they all sit in plain sight on high chairs for much of their down time, but the whole "concert adaptation" designation seems calculated to take the onus off the fact that the production has little dancing (Finian's Rainbow was originally choreographed by Michael Kidd) and is played on a small, square stage with only a few benches and a mural of clouds with sheet-music images as scenery. James Morgan is credited with the set design, Mary Jo Dondlinger with the lighting design, David Toser with the costume design -- all of them toiling with adequate if limited resources.

Anyway, keeping the singing actors around to watch each other turns out to be an especially good idea for a show about an imagined community in the mythical southern state of Missitucky. The locals are friendly to newcomers Finian McLonergan (Jonathan Freeman) and daughter Sharon (Melissa Errico), who've come from Ireland because Finian wants to bury a stolen pot of gold near Fort Knox so it'll multiply -- or some such nonsense. However, the Missitucky folks aren't friendly to the bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins (John Sloman), who'd like to buy up their Rainbow Valley land. Complications arise when Og the leprechaun (Malcolm Gets), from whom the aforementioned gold was stolen, trails the McLonergans and becomes partly responsible for Senator Rawkins turning black. (In the original production, that meant blackface; in this production, Rawkins dons a three-quarter mask and sensibilities are unruffled.) All comes right in the end as Rawkins learns his lesson and Sharon, boyfriend Woody (Max Von Essen), Og, and his instant inamorata Susan the Silent (Kimberley Dawn Neumann) are let off various hooks. (Incidentally, librettists Harburg and Fred Saidy based Billboard Rawkins on Theodore G. Bilbo, the Mississippi senator who advocated shipping American blacks to Africa.)

There's no skirting the musical's whimsy, which is occasionally as thick as pecan pie. There's also no way to watch the show and think that, if the creators were tackling it today, they wouldn't reconsider the tobacco cooperative that the Rainbow Valley hands are eager to organize under Woody's stewardship. They might even clear up some of the more clunky topical references, such as referring to the Sears & Roebuck catalog as the Shears & Robust catalog. Still, Harburg and Saidy constructed a sturdy plot according to the musical comedy conventions prevalent in the post-World War II years when the future looked bright -- or looked as if it should look bright. They dovetailed the two love stories nicely, handed around the soaring songs, dispensed workable jokes.

Terri White, Melissa Errico, Max Von Essen, Jonathan Freeman,
and the cast of Finian's Rainbow
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Indeed, as the kind of well-crafted, mid-century show that Finian's Rainbow represents recedes into the past, it begins to look even better. (The same is true of the current Wonderful Town revival.) The collaborators put their faith in craft and in performers. They believed -- and they were right to -- that skilled singer-actors delivering well-wrought material was all a musical needed to succeed; it was unnecessary to burden a show with special effects or annoyingly enhanced sound.

This unamplified production of Finian's Rainbow, though it gets by on a lick and a promise in budgetary terms, is a worthy recreation. Melissa Errico, always ravishing and here with her curly black hair streaming brook-like round her face, is a gift as Sharon. The plangent quality of her voice may not be quite as plangent as that of the part's originator, Ella Logan -- but, then again, no one's is. Malcolm Gets has been handed the role for which David Wayne copped one of the first Tonys and he plays it with a low feyness quotient, thank goodness. He's got both "Something Sort of Grandish" and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" under his belt, and when Og turns mortal, Gets's sudden macho affect is hilarious.

Jonathan Freeman's Finian is gruff, another of this comic actor's accomplished, fully realized turns. John Sloman gives Senator Rawkins a human edge, and when he joins the so-called Gospeleers (Eric Jackson, Joacquin Stevens, and Terri White) in Harburg's devilish "The Begat," he's marvelous. Speaking of White: Her voice is lower than a coalminer's boot, which is to the good. Kimberly Dawn Neumann, the lines of her body flowing like banners, does most of the dancing that Barry McNabb has choreographed on the crowded stage. She's joined briefly by Gets, and their casual twirling is delightful. David Staller handles the narration with command and looks to be having a swell time when chiming in with the glossy group singing, as does the entire cast.

When Finian's Rainbow opened, the first-night reviewers pulled out the "Something Sort of Grandish" phrase and used it to cheer the musical on. That "sort of" is too much of a reservation, especially when the show is reexamined as skillfully and entertainingly as Charlotte Moore and company have done.

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