Mingled with the many raves for the new production of Finian’s Rainbow (St. James Theatre) has come a curious counterpoint, on blogs and chat boards, of complaint. Apparently, New York’s theater aficionados are split between those simply happy to have a great musical from 1947 back, in whatever condition, and those who seem weirdly infuriated that it doesn’t blow them away, in a manner so alien to the spirit of 1947 that they might as well resent Monteverdi’s Orfeo for not being Next to Normal.
Sanity, of course, lies somewhere between. A 1947 musical, however historic, needs a degree of vibrancy to stay alive onstage 62 years later. Younger people who feel a slight lack in that vibrancy view it in terms of our time, when vibrancy in musicals has mostly been replaced by hyperactivity and hit-you-over-the-head loudness. And much of the charm of Finian’s Rainbow comes precisely from its being the 1947 musical success least adaptable to today’s hit-you-over-the-head sensibility. The widespread enthusiasm the show has aroused indicates the extent to which the era of loudness for its own sake is drawing to a close; the mutterings of its detractors make clear that, in the new age to come, the enthusiasts won’t have everything their own way.
As indeed they shouldn’t. Loudness, busyness, and flamboyant excess are all built into the great vulgar heart of the musical theater; what you use them for and how you give them quality are the key questions. Musicals that simply pile on the money and the noise will always make a louder impression than Finian’s Rainbow, but will rarely be anywhere near as good. Meantime, the new production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, has given Finian a substantial amount, though not all, of what it needs to make an impression so many years later.
Getting even this far can’t have been easy. Though an adorable duck of a show, Finian’s Rainbow is certainly one of the oddest ducks ever bred in the genre—the only musical, for starters, to contain both leprechauns and sharecroppers. Lyricist and co-librettist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s mind must have been a delightful, preposterous amalgam of OED, novelty shop, newsstand, and leftist lending library. Few lyricists in Broadway’s golden age would have rhymed, in a love song, “Carmen Miranda” and “Red propaganda”; even fewer would have had the delicious impertinence to sum up the male impulse toward promiscuity with, “When I’m not facing the face that I fancy/I fancy the face I face.”
Harburg’s great pairings were with Harold Arlen and, in Finian, with Burton Lane—composers whose cantorial gift for melodies with a plaintive undertow gives weight to his airy whimsicality. Finian‘s score is extraordinary, one catch-fire masterpiece after another. Its book proceeds in an eccentric, puckish way, working 1947 twists on ancient theatrical saws. Broadway had slurped up Irish fake-folklore for decades; Harburg and co-librettist Fred Saidy reveled in it while openly announcing its fakery. Minstrel-show blackface was a convention that had not yet wholly disappeared; Harburg and Saidy turned it against itself by putting it on their white-racist villain.
The convention having now disappeared, Carlyle sensibly divides the bigot’s role between a black and a white actor, which speeds up the transformation and makes for a lovely extra irony as we watch a black actor “realize” that his skin is black. Chuck Cooper’s milking of this hilarious moment, built carefully on David Schramm’s droll performance in the white part of the role, is one of the revival’s high spots. Another comes when Jim Norton’s crisply sly Finian launches the chorus into an authentically stiff-legged Irish jig.
Not everything in this production carries that degree of magic. Carlyle, primarily a choreographer, keeps the show moving at a steady clip and supplies athletic dances, making more use than Broadway has seen lately of the acrobatic leaps and lifts that gave old-style shows much of their exhilaration. What he doesn’t always do is spark connections among his charming principal actors, all of whom tend to seem slightly off on their own, even during duets.
Even so, when Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson pour out one of Lane’s alluring melodies, or when Alina Faye, as Susan the Silent, flutters her dainty feet under the awestruck gaze of Christopher Fitzgerald’s leprechaun-turned-human, or when Terri White reconfirms her status as this generation’s official owner of “Necessity,” Finian’s Rainbow seems every bit as entrancing as its enthusiasts claim. The detractors are probably right to demand the extra spark that isn’t always there, the magical balance the great old musicals knew how to strike between full-out individuality on the performers’ part and a sweeping unity of effect. But while clamoring so impatiently for the latter, the complainers are missing the substantial fun already onstage. Not all pleasures need to be explosive.
For pleasure in the explosive vein, the kvetchers might try Love Child (New World Stages), 85 frenzied minutes of pure silliness written and performed by Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton, who inhabit all the characters and sound effects of one (thankfully imaginary!) horrific night among professionalism-free but desperately hard-working theatrical wannabes who have elected to revive Euripides’ obscure Ion at a converted sausage factory in Red Hook. To gauge the degree of silliness involved, take that premise as the evening’s most believable aspect. Jenkins is a capable comic actor; the lanky Stanton, who appears to have been assembled wholly from pipe cleaners, is a born clown. You probably won’t need to take your mood elevators after seeing them.
Lynn Redgrave, a dauntless soul and a commanding actress, works through another segment of her pain-ridden family background in her solo show Nightingale, finding and communicating the love, as well as the pathos, in the story of her maternal grandmother, affection-starved as a child and starchily Victorian as a parent, whom it must have been awfully hard to like. The show’s sad-sweet effect is small-scale but cherishable, like a gift of an antique carved-ivory cameo.