Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

'Finian's Rainbow' a deft satiric musical fantasy about racism

A Broadway smash from the '40s is reprised by the Irish Rep

By Lucy Komisar


Finian's Rainbow
Written by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy
Music by Burton Lane
Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Musical direction by Mark Hartman

Irish Repertory
132 West 22nd Street

You've heard the songs before: "That Old Devil Moon," "If This Isn't Love," "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" and "Look to the Rainbow." Old standards, now. Did you know that the show they come from, "Finian's Rainbow," is a show about American racism?

Finian's Rainbow
Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Book writer/lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg was a socialist who, along with his co-author Fred Saidy, also wrote the feminist musical "Bloomer Girl" all the way back in 1944. "Finian's Rainbow" opened in 1947 and ran for 725 performances.

The Irish Repertory production is advertised as a concert performance, but this is staged theater with everything but the scenery. And you don't miss it. The dialogue (slightly cut with the help of a narrator) is spoken from memory, not books, and it's smartly acted by a stellar musical comedy cast headed by Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets who were teamed on Broadway in "Amour." Under Charlotte Moore's impeccable direction, Errico's soprano is honeyed, her acting captivating, and Gets is a charmer you'd like to take home.

And in this intimate theater, there's no need for mics!

The unlikely story, more a parable, is that Finian McLonergan (played with great theatrical panache by Jonathan Freeman) and his daughter Sharon (Errico) have come from Ireland with a pot of gold stolen from the Leprechaun, Og (Gets). Finian plans to bury it in Fort Knox in "Missitucky," where he is sure it will grow in the rich American soil.

They all arrive in a southern town that might be idyllic, except that it's dominated by a nasty racist Senator (Larry Ford). Ah, there comes the politics. Og falls in love with Sharon, but she is being wooed by Woody Mahoney (an engaging Max Van Essen), who is organizing the sharecroppers against the senator's efforts to cheat them out of their land. More politics. A maid (Terri White) exclaims: "That man's so racist, he don't even like black-eyed peas!" And she goes on to give a jazzy, mournful rendition of the gospel song, "Necessity."

Finian's Rainbow
The cast of 'Finian's Rainbow'
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Think of these class-conscious lyrics: "When the idle poor become the idle rich, you won't know your Jones from your As-tors. You won't know your banker from your but-ler." Harburg and Saidy knew just how to sugar-coat their message in vibrant albeit sometimes hokey Broadway songs. And they add a few appealing romances.

Errico inquires of the Senator if he's ever read the U.S. Constitution. (Where are Harburg and Saidy when we need them now!) And then (oh, the wonderful power of fantasy), Sharon, not realizing she is standing over the hidden pot of gold, wishes the Senator were black so he would understand the effect of his policies on the poor! Okay, his blackface mask is a slight rip-off from Phantom.

Then, Sharon is accused by local authorities of being a witch, of "demoting" a member of the white race to be a member of the black race. It was a broad satire that authors hoped would penetrate the segregationist mind-set of the 1940s.

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