I love the new logo/poster for the current Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, which opened last night at the St. James Theater. Not only is it vibrant and colorful, but it also conveys a clear sense that this is an old-fashioned musical that nonetheless provides a contemporary resonance.
And that's exactly what Finian's Rainbow is, at least as presented in the Broadway production. I was unimpressed by the show during its Encores stint (read my review), but in retrospect, it would seem that the book for that concert presentation was overly truncated. While I reveled in the Burton Lane/E.Y. "Yip" Harburg score, the lack of proper context in David Ives's abbreviated version of the libretto made the show detrimentally fragmented.
I saw the Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow the same day that I saw the execrable Bye Bye Birdie, and the comparison was quite telling. This production of Finian's has a life that's totally missing from the current Birdie. Why does Finian's succeed where Birdie fails? In a word: direction. Warren Carlyle brings a cohesive tone and a vibrancy to Finian's, with every character playing from the same page, whereas Robert Longbottom seems to have directed Birdie in absentia.
It's interesting to note how otherwise talented directors can drop the ball. Longbottom helmed the recent Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, which contained some very innovative if not quite sustained staging, although the production closed at a loss. On the other hand, Carlyle was responsible for the theatrical misstep that was A Tale of Two Cities, although most of the blame for that abomination must surely go to its composer/lyricist/librettist, Jill Santoriello. That's the bizarre alchemy of theater for you: on any given production, the various talents present may or may not coalesce into a coherent and entertaining whole. There are no guarantees; it's always a crap shoot.
Carlyle certainly had a major advantage over Longbottom in terms of casting. Whereas Birdie seems to have been cast by committee in a blatant attempt to appeal to as many disparate constituencies as possible, the cast for Finian's is more organic. The lovely Kate Baldwin comes off infinitely better than she did in the recent Huntington Theatre production of of She Loves Me (read my review), and positively sparkles as Sharon. Cheyenne Jackson is charming but a bit indistinct as Woody, although he certainly can fill out a pair of jeans. Tony winner Jim Norton is pitch-perfect in the title role, and Christopher Fitzgerald is a delight as the leprechaun Og, giving a far more measured and entertaining performance than he did in Young Frankenstein. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful Terri White as Dottie, if only because of the moving piece that the New York Times recently ran on her. Apparently, Ms. White was homeless not 18 months ago, and now she's back on Broadway, a haunting reminder of the vicissitudes of the actor's life.
The production, and the show itself, do suffer from the occasional misstep. When I saw Finian's on Broadway, I was over on the far right of the orchestra, and my view was occasionally obstructed, but from what I could see, when the Senator Hawkins character is turned black, Chuck Cooper, who plays the African America version of Hawkins, looked down into the front of his pants to see if the transformation was...er...complete. The costumes during "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" looked like someone had raided the costume closet of a local community theater. And I still don't quite get the point of the "Dance of the Golden Crock," in which the mute Susan character has a call-and-response dance/harmonica duet with another cast member. It seems like dance for dance's sake, and doesn't appear to serve any higher purpose.
As a piece, Finian's Rainbow is a direct descendant of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition, which places a premium on crafting shows that both entertain and inform. Finian's is a particularly compelling amalgam of old-fashioned structure and modern sensibility. But somehow it works, offering both a strong social message and a charming diversion. And that's exactly what librettist/lyricist Yip Harburg intended. "Of course I want to send people out of the theater with the glow of having a good time," Harburg once said about the show. "But I also think the purpose of a musical is to make people think."