Revival of the Fittest

After 52 years, Finian has its wit and whimsy intact.

Finian's Rainbow. Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, Playhouse Square. 216-241-6000. Through December 12.
Jay Robert Spencer (center) and the rest of the Rainbow coalition.
Jay Robert Spencer (center) and the rest of the Rainbow coalition.
Some of the audience at the splendid pre-Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow at the Palace seemed a bit disoriented, as if they had just encountered fresh churned butter after a lifetime of scooping oleo out of a plastic container. Those weaned on decades of anemic stage versions of movies (Saturday Night Fever) and empty spectacles like Miss Saigon are taken aback by ingredients of high quality: in Finian's case, pure satire and whimsy, blended with jubilant melody.

Lyricist E.Y. Harburg struck immortality back in 1939 when he sent L. Frank Baum's child heroine "over the rainbow" in a journey for the ages. In 1947 lightning struck again when he summoned up one Finian McLonergan out of a storybook Ireland, sending him and his daughter to America to plant a crock of filched leprechaun gold in the fertile soil of a fictitious Misatucky (near Fort Knox) to cultivate a gold crop.

Here, along with book co-writer Fred Saidy, Harburg created another company of endearing fey folk on a magic journey: a leprechaun caught in a dilemma between staying a pixie or being a he-man lover of mortal women, for "when he's not near the girl he loves, he loves the girl he's near." There is also a prejudiced senator, who, like the Oz-ian horse, changes color, becoming a black man in the South. In attendance is the other Harburg specialty, the wistful young girl yearning for her home in a ballad that goes straight for the jugular, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?"

Finian's Rainbow was born out of the same rush of postwar optimism as Brigadoon. Both are lush fantasies endowed with melodious scores and stunning choreography, lasting mementos of Broadway's halcyon days, when the musical ruled popular culture. Brigadoon is the granddaughter of swoony operetta, while Finian is descended from Gilbert and Sullivan, a biting political satire cobbled together by a Tin Pan Alley Swift pushing political boundaries with jocular jabs at McCarthyism, rampant consumerism, and sexual mores ("though the movie censors tried the facts to hide, the moviegoers up and multiplied").

Aided and abetted by composer Burton Lane -- another Hollywood refugee -- they pulled off a coup similar to the Gershwin brothers' Porgy and Bess. Appropriating homespun Americana like gospel and blues, giving it an urban facade, they wrote spirituals to the ecstasy of greed in "That Great Come and Get It Day" and "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich." In "The Begat" they swing a hallelujah paean to the ubiquity of sexual activity ever since Adam met Eve: "It swept the world, every land and lingo; it became the rage -- it was bigger than Bingo!"

Thanks to the attention of countless balladeers warbling "Old Devil Moon," Burton Lane's music has never been absent from the easy listening charts. Yet the show itself hit the skids. Even a terrific film version that sadly came too late (1968) couldn't keep it from retreating into scrapbooks.

Now, a group of theatrical surgeons in league with the creators' heirs have performed wonders. Book doctor Peter Stone has atoned for politically correcting Annie Get Your Gun to death by skillfully shoring up the 52-year-old book and giving the jokes psychological heft, cleverly pasting the songs to hold more firmly to the satire. For example, he has turned "Necessity" into an ode to adapting at all costs by giving it to a trio of servants forced to feign mammyisms for their Birth of a Nation-loving employer. Bringing a sharper edge to the original's social commentary, but giving it far more power, is a scene -- which Harburg was not allowed to do in '47 -- where the newly black senator is humiliated by his own police force.

Director Lonny Price, thankfully, doesn't attempt to perform a complete reinterpretation and makeover of the show. It's more like the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, giving a new glow to slightly tarnished old glory.

Loren Sherman has dexterously designed Rainbow Valley as a Rousseau-like landscape of nature gone wild. With shamrocks and lily pads and a sky of clotheslines strewn with multicolored sheets, it is the perfect wonderland for the fluttering hands, folksy grace, and down-home groupings of Marguerite Derricks's authentically '40s choreography. The ensemble that fills this stylized landscape is a Life-Saver pack of all races and hues -- among them Tina Ou's fluttering deaf-mute Asian Susan the Silent and Jay Robert Spencer's folk hero Woody.

Noted Shakespearean Brian Murphy's Finian replaces the frayed elegance that Fred Astaire brought to the film with an ingratiating broguing Sir Toby Belch. As his daughter, Kate, Jennings Grant manages to avoid the cloying Irish mannerisms of Ella Logan of the original Broadway production, yet lacks the warmth that Petula Clark brought to the role in its incarnation on film.

Dennis O'Hare's Og the Leprechaun metamorphoses with carefree abandon from prancing pixie to lustful satyr. Though the cast is a balanced ensemble, mention must be made of Austin Pendleton's stand-out comic performance as Senator Rawkins, with bewildered baby blues staring out of his newly acquired African American visage. It's an image to make the ghost of the great Jolson himself cringe with envy.

As precious as the leprechaun's crock of gold, a treasured piece of Americana lost to generations of theatergoers is wonderfully rediscovered. To quote Harburg himself: "It's so terrifish, magnifish, delish!"

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