At the Playhouse, Loren Sherman's set is the first star to make an appearance. The rainbow of Rainbow Valley constructs itself in front of our eyes as overlapping pastel bedsheets appear in a patchwork pattern in the sky. (Phil Monat's lighting design in this scene alone gets my Tony vote.) The huge tree in which Finian and Sharon hide themselves to eavesdrop on the troubled citizens of Missitucky is the predominant piece of scenery. Paul Tazewell's inventive and playful costumes get their own production number, in the delightful "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich," which is marvelously complemented by choreographer Marguerite Derricks. She stages a fashion show put on by the sharecroppers, who have just donned fancy duds, thanks to Finian's new line of credit at Sears, Roebuck and Co. (The choreographer's recent credits include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.)
Although the show is best known for its ballads "Old Devil Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and the goofy "If This Isn't Love," two novelty songs, "Necessity" and "The Begat," provide the musical equivalent of Finian's pot of gold. Showstoppers in the old-fashioned sense, the numbers are performed by a trio of African-American women and men respectively, and more than any other aspect of Finian's Rainbow, they return the civil rights message back to its rightful messengers. An uproarious up-tempo ditty sung by the maids in the senator's plantation house, "Necessity" speaks of the ways in which blacks have had to accommodate the white world in order to survive. "The Begat," on the other hand, sung by the three wandering performers, celebrates the gospel tradition that helped African-Americans endure centuries of hardship.
There's a pot of gold at the end of this Rainbow
Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy (revised by Peter Stone). Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by Harburg. Directed by Lonny Price. Choreographed by Marguerite Derricks. Musical direction by Eric Stern. Starring Austin Pendleton, Brian Murray, Kate Jennings Grant, Denis O'Hare, J. Robert Spencer, Tina Ou, Don Stephenson, and Joseph Webster. Through November 21.
Brian Murray's performance as Finian is also golden, nodding as it does to the tradition of Irish actors from Barry Fitzgerald to Jackie Gleason. He's wonderfully acquitted by Kate Jennings Grant as Sharon, a role that requires little more than a lovely voice. Luckily for us Grant also possesses a sense of humor, the better to pull of "If This Isn't Love," the duet she sings with Og, the leprechaun. ("If this isn't love," she trills, "I'm Carmen Miranda. If this isn't love, it's Red propaganda.") J. Robert Spencer, who plays Woody, is less charismatic but not less talented. As Susan Mahoney, Woody's mute sister who uses dance to communicate, Tina Ou has the thankless task of playing second fiddle to the show's other sprite, Og, but her movements are exquisite. Finally, as the embodiment of human folly, magic, and mortal love, Denis O'Hare's Og is the true star of the show, as a leprechaun should be. Thanks to all of them, Finian's Rainbow is, to borrow Og's phrase, something sort of grandish indeed.