By Donna Herman
I understand the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temptation to revive the classic 1947 musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” It has a lovely score with a couple of songs that have become standards like “Look to the Rainbow” and “Old Devil Moon.” And it deals with timely topics like racism and social and economic justice. However, sometimes temptation needs to be resisted. What looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into stage magic, despite the inclusion of leprechauns and pots of gold.
“Finian’s Rainbow” was written in 1947. It takes place then, in the Jim Crow South, in fictional “Rainbow Valley, Missitucky,” on a tobacco plantation worked by sharecroppers. The plot is convoluted and doesn’t bear close scrutiny by today’s standards. While Harburg & Saidy, who wrote the original book & lyrics, had courage to comment on racial and economic matters at all, it doesn’t hold up. Seventy years later I squirmed in my seat listening to, among other things, “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day.” Sung admirably by the talented ensemble, it’s a paen to the idea that credit is the solution to the financial woes of the struggling sharecroppers.
At the open, Woody (Ryan Silverman) the plantation’s white owner, is off raising money to save it, while the Sheriff (Peyton Crim) is being pressured to auction it off for back taxes by Buzz Collins (Matt Gibson). Buzz is acting for the racist landgrabber Senator Billboard Rawkins (Dewey Caddell).
Enter Finian McLonergan (Ken Jennings) and his young, unmarried daughter Sharon (Melissa Errico), just off the boat from Ireland. Finian is the very stereotype of a superstitious old Irishman with a twinkle in his eye, a tale on his lips, and a scheme in his head. He’s stolen, er…borrowed, a pot of gold from a leprechaun, and come to America where, he’s heard, there’s gold in the ground. And if you bury a small amount of gold near Fort Knox, which is next to Missitucky, it will quickly grow into millions. Sure now. Following them from Ireland is Og (Mark Evans), the leprechaun looking for his pot of gold. Without it, he’s slowly turning into a mortal and losing his powers, so he wants it back.
What follows is so wild and convoluted you need to suspend your disbelief. Sharon turns racist Senator Rawkins into a black man accidentally by magic, and the half mask he puts on to denote the change makes him look more like a cardboard box than a man of color. No wonder he slinks away into the forest. Og observes that it wasn’t his outsides that needed changing, but his insides, and with the last of his magical powers, turns him into a nice guy. The Senator starts singing, meets up with a gospel quartet in need of a fourth and joins up.
Meanwhile, Og can’t shake loose the pot of gold from Finian, who’s buried it, and Sharon has used up one of the 3 wishes the pot can grant someone before turning into a crock of s**t. Og is turning into a mortal more rapidly, which means he’s fickle like all mortal men. First he falls in love with Sharon, then he falls in love with Susan (Lyrica Woodruff), whom he stumbles upon in the forest after she’s had a little solo dance and found the crock of gold and re-buried it. Og sees her, immediately falls in love and starts courting her with “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Any girl would swoon. Well, Susan the Silent does.
Whereupon, Finian races in and breaks the news that Sharon has been arrested for witchcraft for turning Senator Rawkins black. She has until the crack of dawn to turn him back or she and Woody will be hanged. He looks for the gold and can’t find it. Og figures out that Sharon was sitting on it when she wished the Senator black. He asks Susan if she knows where it is, and she can’t answer. He is standing over it as he wishes she could talk and lo and behold….the gold is recovered, Og makes the decision between becoming a leprechaun again and turning the Senator white to save Sharon and Woody and well, it’s a musical folks….what do you think happens?
The love story between Woody and Sharon (begun at first glance) should carry the day. Unfortunately, there is no chemistry between Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico, and they both seem to be phoning it in. Which puzzles me since they’re accomplished actors. Errico has played the role before, though she admits in an article she wrote for the NY Times in August “I’m 46. Is That Too Old to Play the Ingenue?” that she might be a little long in the tooth for it today. And Silverman can raise goosebumps singing a love song to a wall in a basement on YouTube, he’s so good. It doesn’t help that Charlotte Moore’s laissez faire directing allows the actors to practically ignore each other during their love scenes.
What saves the day was the rest of the talented cast, especially the outstanding performance by UK import Mark Evans as the leprechaun Og. By turns naïve, sly, and always witty, he oozed charm, was nimble, graceful and sang like an angel. A handsome tall lad with a shock of green hair in front, I couldn’t blame Susan for falling for the two-timing sprite with no game at all, but a darling grin.
Finian’s Rainbow Music by Burton Lane, Book by Yip Harburg & Fed Saidy, Lyrics by Yip Harburg; Adapted & Directed by Charlotte Moore
WITH: William Bellamy (Gospeleer); Kimberly Doreen Burns (Lily Mae); Dewey Caddell (Senator Rawkins); Peyton Crim (Sheriff); Melissa Errico (Sharon; Mark Evans (Og); Matt Gibson (Buzz Collins); Angela Grovey (Sally Ann); Ken Jennings (Finian McLonergan); Ramone Owens (Gospeleer); Kyle Taylor Parker (Gospeleer); Ryan Silverman (Woody); Lyrica Woodruff (Susan the Silent)
Musical supervision by John Bell; choreography by Barry McNabb; music direction by Geraldine Anello; set design by James Morgan; costume design by David Toser; lighting design by Mary Jo Dondlinger; hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance; orchestrations by Josh Clayton; casting by Deborah Brown; stage manager, Pamela Brusoski; producing director for the Irish Repertory Theatre, Ciaran O’Reilly. Through December 31st. 132 West 22nd Street. www.irishrep.org.