There's "something sort of grandish" happening at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where Charlotte Moore's thoroughly delightful production of Finian's Rainbow has taken up shop. Small-scale revivals of large old musicals are always dicey, but Moore, who has staged the show at the Irish Rep once before, captures the magic within Burton Lane, Yip Harburg, and Fred Saidy's 1947 classic with great immediacy.
Moore's last mounting of Finian's Rainbow, in 2004, was billed as a concert production. It was a streamlined, trimmed-down affair that featured a narrator delivering expository passages and a score orchestrated for two pianos. Here, the ante is upped, but only slightly: It's a straightforward version of the show, but with whole swaths of script wisely excised, and the score played by a superb four-member chamber orchestra.
Don't go in expecting huge production values and a massive cast, like the ones that adorned Broadway's Tony-nominated Finian's Rainbow of 2009. But that's the appeal of this version, a scrappy affair that captures the heart and soul of the material without going over the top.
Finian's Rainbow has never been plot heavy, and Moore's cuts to Harburg and Saidy's book are smartly judicious. Set in the fictional state of Missitucky in the American South, the musical follows Sharon McLonergan (Melissa Errico) and her old dad, Finian (Ken Jennings), who have immigrated from Ireland to bury a stolen pot of gold with the belief that it will make them grow rich. Almost as soon as they arrive, they meet Woody Mahoney (Ryan Silverman), the leader of a multiracial union of sharecroppers who takes an instant liking to Sharon. Complicating matters is the news that Finian has stolen the gold from Og (Mark Evans), a leprechaun who, without it, is slowly turning human, and the arrival of Senator Rawkins (Dewey Caddell), a white bigoted politician who gets a taste of his own racism when he's magically wished into an black man.
Written long before the civil rights movement took shape, Finian's Rainbow was well ahead of its time in presenting an integrated vision of the Jim Crow South. White actors and black actors touched hands and danced together, unheard of at the time. But for all its advancements, the musical still contributed to the problem, with the actor playing the senator using blackface to display the character's conversion. The 2009 revival featured two different actors — one white, one black — to pull off the change; here, Caddell, affecting a humorous Foghorn Leghorn drawl, wisely uses a half-mask. True, by today's standards, this subplot can admittedly be seen as troublesome, but to our surprise, given the current political climate, it takes on a surprisingly enormous relevance.
Thematically, the rest of Finian's Rainbow is a lot sillier, though Moore gives the production weight while deftly playing the ridiculousness to the hilt. Errico, who starred in the 2004 iteration, presents an older, world-weary Sharon, giving the character's relationship with the virile Woody the poignant feeling of a last shot. She still sings like a dream, her velvety soprano the perfect match for the Lane-Harburg tunes. Silverman, with whom Errico starred in Classic Stage Company's Passion in 2012, is her perfect match.
Evans, a British stage vet making his New York debut, is a total charmer as the leprechaun, who eventually falls for Woody's sister, Susan the Silent (a dance role performed to perfection by Lyrica Woodruff). Jennings, the original Tobias in Sweeney Todd, makes a hilariously gruff Finian (though in David Toser's worn down, green-tinged costumes, he looks more like an actual leprechaun than Evans). Angela Grovey brings down the house with the first-act showstopper "Necessity," while Caddell, William Bellamy, Ramone Owens, and Kyle Taylor Parker do the same with the second-act number "Begat."
Best of all, the compactness of this production, on an airy, down-home unit set by James Morgan, allows the company to perform the matchless score unamplified, featuring legendary standards like "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "Old Devil Moon." It's more than only "sort of grandish." With Errico, Silverman, Grovey, and company front and center, sounding like a cast of 50 rather than 13, this Finian's Rainbow is downright glorious.