Finian's Rainbow

by Wickham Boyle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 15, 2016

"Finian's Rainbow" is chukka-block filled with sweet, near to saccharine songs that we all know from grandparents or a dusky bar. Songs like "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," "Old Devil Moon" and "How are Things in Glocca Morra," but what this reviewer didn't know was that the script, which bowed as a musical film in 1968, was also tackling Jim Crow segregation, racism, and the hope necessary to conquer it. Therefore this is the perfect piece to see post the election of a man who espoused a return to a time that this piece is cautioning against and arguing.

The premise is disarmingly simple. A feisty, tiny Irishman named Finian, played with pluck and charm by Ken Jennings (no, not of Jeopardy fame) lands in America with his faithful daughter Sharon, the silver-voiced Melissa Errico. They bring with them a pot of gold stolen from a leprechaun named Og.

They land in Rainbow Valley in the mythical state of Missatucky. The time is 1947 and segregation is in full force with an unscrupulous real estate owner attempting to throw people off their land for minor infractions. The work was unusual at the time for its integrated cast as both the white landowners and the black sharecroppers unite against the politicians and evil developers.

When "Finian's Rainbow" first debuted, it was the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and the composer Burton Land, Fred Saidy and Yip Harburg who co-wrote the book and penned the prescient lyrics decrying segregation and blatant racism took a risk. They cloaked the strong political ideas in music that moves from sweet to trenchant and always provokes a smile or a winsome wince.

The work is in two acts, and the small thrust stage at the Irish Rep has been adorned and transformed into a rural backyard utilizing the simplest, most beautiful set by James Morgan. Upstage right there is a small combo with a violin, cello, and harp. And the musical director, Geraldine Anello, led the ensemble on piano with such a glorious energy that she needed to have taken a bow.

There is an unusual character called Susan The Silent who dances all of her songs and interactions and is interpreted by one of the sharecroppers who seems to understand her every word. Add to this the cutest leprechaun ever to cross the ocean played with green hair and great guile by Mark Evans. Eventually, Og grants Susan's wish to speak and they are paired off and we trust live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, Sharon has fallen for Woody, played by tall and handsome Ryan Silverman. Both Woody and Sharon can belt out tunes or take their duets to a quiet, introspective place. The other townsfolk, most especially glorious, big-voiced Kimberly Burns whose Lily Mae is a friend to all, hold hands with the sharecroppers and join in on songs that rock the house. Angela Gorvey as Sally Ann leads the sharecroppers in a number called "Necessity" that elicits wild clapping from the audience. She is wonderful.

In the end there are twists and turns: the evil Senator Rawlins, by dint of a hapless wish, becomes black and has to hide because he is so embarrassed until he is taken in by a quartet of black singers who have lost their fourth voice and the Senator experiences true happiness in the midst of people who recognize his talents and welcome him.

Of course, it all ends well. Everyone has his love and farms are saved. Finian returns to Ireland to perhaps sprinkle pixie dust on another beleaguered town, and I sure wished he had tossed some out onto the plains and cities of America to save us magically.

"Finian's Rainbow" runs through December 31 at The Irish Repertory Theater, 132 W 22nd St, New York, NY 10011. For information or tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit https://irishrep.org/show/2016-2017-season/finians-rainbow/