Friday, December 11, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

Conventional wisdom said that Finian's Rainbow, old-fashioned and with once progressive but now supposedly dated themes, wasn't supposed to work in this day and age. Conventional wisdom was dead wrong, and didn't count on the magic that happens when the material is respected and trusted unabashedly. I'd seen the Encores! production and swooned over it, and then saw half of this Broadway transfer a few weeks ago (damn that early 7 PM curtain). Seeing it now, with paying Broadway customers, confirmed how fully the production can captivate and the material can resonate with a contemporary (non-industry, non-aficionado) audience. The show's B-plot, in which a racist white governor is turned black, is the show's trickiest element - if it is not handled in the loving spirit in which it was written, it runs the risk of coming off preachy or worse. It's a testament to this production's resounding success that when the leprechaun Og (played winningly by Christopher Fitzgerald) tells the race-changed governor (Chuck Cooper) that the magic spell should have changed him inside rather than out, this audience applauded spontaneously mid-scene. Conventions that aren't supposed to work anymore - love at first sight, enchanted characters - work as they once dependably did because of the production's wholehearted embrace of them. The result is charming, transporting, even affecting: smart whimsy done miraculously right. The show is blessed with an ideal cast led by the radiant, gorgeous-voiced Kate Baldwin and Broadway's current leading leading man Cheyenne Jackson: their songs together could melt polar ice caps. Whoever thought of and lured Jim Norton into his role is a genius: Norton's performance is perfectly pitched to capture all the humor and a touch of sentimentality while always grounded in something truthful. Fitzgerald, the only major cast change since Encores, swiftly won me over, and I say that as someone who adored predecessor Jeremy Bobb. Terri White makes "Necessity" the best, most pure kind of showstopper - while staying within the confines of what is called for, she sings it with so much heart and musical skill that the audience can't wait to applaud her. The score is full of ageless but not overused gems - "How Are Things In Glocca Mora?", "Ol' Devil Moon", "If This Isn't Love", and so on - and the care has been taken to ensure that they sound warm, balanced and beautiful in the house. (I wish the same level of attention had been paid to the set, the one disappointment of this production, but if sets are a deal-breaker for you I'm sure you aren't here reading my blog anyhow). I'm a fierce proponent of new musicals with fresh, culturally relevant scores, but that doesn't mean I want to see yesteryear's gems left in the dustheap, not when they can shine as brightly as this revival. This is special.

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