In these post-Sondheim, pro-revival days, it's sometimes difficult to find the why and wherefore of the Broadway musical. On the one hand, Times Square overflows with new productions of Grease and Saturday Night Fever and the self-perpetuating Cats, as though the industry were one gigantic broken record. On the other hand, some revivals (Carousel, Showboat, and Cabaret) have been infused with more sophistication than their original versions. When a work like the current dance musical Contact comes along, we wonder if the form has extended its reach yet again or if the hit is just the proverbial flash in the pan. How many choreographers are there, after all, who can imagine and then sustain such an intricate story?
The assassination of the musical theater by the great enemy television has been well documented, but more-recent events have prevented a true rebirth. As much as any art form, the Broadway musical has been affected by the AIDS crisis, most directly with the loss of Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line) in 1987. For a short while in the '80s, until Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors) died from the disease in 1991, it seemed like the form's choicest elements were going to be permanently available as Disney animation, in the great Menken and Ashman scores of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. One non-AIDS-related early death, that of Jonathan Larson in 1996 just as Rent was about to become a smash, has made many wonder what might happen if someone could continue to make the musical theater inviting to people under the age of 35.
Chances are you need to be over 35 to even remember your parents humming along to the wonderful score of Finian's Rainbow, now receiving a much-heralded, Broadway-bound revival at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and " Old Devil Moon" were unceremoniously removed from most jukeboxes about 20 years ago. The truth is, though, the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg score of this 1947 gem is as lovely as they come. I'm the first to admit that, when I heard about this project, my first thought was "Do we really need a revival of Finian's Rainbow?" But the Coconut Grove production, starring Austin Pendleton and the great Brian Murray, has won me over.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-2662
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.
The show, which originally appeared on Broadway the same year as Brigadoon, is set in its own magical kingdom -- the fictional state of Missitucky -- where black and white sharecroppers work side by side. The cast features an Irish immigrant (Murray) and his daughter, as well as the leprechaun who followed them from their hometown, a bigoted U.S. senator, a folksinger, and the singer's sister, an elfin girl who dances rather than speaks. A fable about racial prejudice with some love songs thrown in for good measure, Finian's Rainbow is a pastiche of postwar Americana. It celebrates a time when Irish culture was still predominant. "What's the difference between America and Ireland?" Finian asks Sharon. "There are more Irishmen here," she replies. In Woody Mahoney, the Woody Guthrie-inspired folksinger who wants to travel 'round the country and change the world, it celebrates our naive postwar optimism. (The appealing J. Robert Spencer is so wholesome, he seems born to wear an Eisenhower jacket.)
Thanks to its appealing story, in which the baldly racist Sen. Billy Bob Rawkins (Pendleton) finds himself transformed, à la leprechaun, into a black man, Finian's Rainbow now reappears on stage as both a museum piece and contemporary tall tale. Although the face of modern racism is multifaceted beyond anything imagined by Harburg and Saidy's book (updated here by Peter Stone), the show gives us an entirely satisfying confrontation between the racist senator and his own blind bigotry. Directed by Lonny Price, this production reaches its emotional high points when the senator is stupefied to realize that, thanks to his black skin, he has lost every privilege -- from physical safety to common respect -- afforded him as a white man. Pendleton (who played the medical examiner on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets last season) gives a nimble and compelling performance as a great mule of a bigot.
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Indeed Finian's Rainbow is the rare Broadway show in which the love story is delicately and successfully wrapped inside a political statement. (To understand what an accomplishment this is, consider the recent failure of Alfred Uhry -- whose lighthearted but intelligent touch with matters of bigotry is as good as any -- and his Parade lyricist Jason Robert Brown to make a musical out of the Mary Phagan-Leo Frank tragedy.) To borrow a term from the movies, the romance between Sharon and Woody in Finian's Rainbow is a MacGuffin, a mere distraction from the issue of whether or not the senator will be changed on the inside by the startling change to his skin color. According to It's a Hit! (David Sheward's Broadway history), attempts to turn this stage show into a movie directly after its Broadway success were waylaid by the antiliberal atmosphere of McCarthyism. Not until 1968 did it come to the screen, with Fred Astaire as Finian. By that time the twee story seemed quite unthreatening compared to the very real civil rights battles, none of which could be put right by leprechauns.
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.
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.