This is the opening scene? Appalachian sharecroppers are being dispossessed for nonpayment of back taxes by capitalist bad guys? Why, we could be watching Michael Moore's new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story! And these very same sharecroppers in Missitucky's Rainbow Valley – they're black and white and working comfortably together! And they purchase consumer goodies from the mail-order catalogue of "Shears and Robust" on credit bubble terms that sound – to paraphrase one of the show's stellar songs – something sort of 2009-ish. This is Finian's Rainbow? The marvelous 1947 show long considered to be unrevivable on Broadway? You better believe it. In the era of President Obama and the Great Recession, this classic show now seems not just timely, but prescient. Not only that, but as sheer entertainment it's not a bit dated, in this canny, loving revival.
Judging from the St. James Theatre, things are still fine in Glocca Morra, a place even Eleanor Roosevelt rhapsodized about in her 1940s newspaper column. And by the way, librettist-lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg pilfered "Glocca Morra" and a few other items of gold from Irish novelist James Stephens's 1912 book The Crock of Gold. In Stephens's magic realist fantasy, Gort na Cloca Mora ("the field of big rocks") is where the leprechauns bury their crock of gold. Then somebody steals the crock and Angus Óg, a god, enters the picture. Sound familiar? But of course Harburg and co-librettist Fred Saidy transform those particulars into their own inimitable, crazy quilt libretto as completely as Senator Billboard Rawkins is transformed from white to black. Sixty years later Finian's Rainbow still does a magical, cock-eyed optimist job of fusing such wildly disparate elements as social justice for working people and minorities, the universal nostalgia for our roots be they Irish or other-ish, and that fuzzy junction of fantasy and reality where, even as disillusioned adults, we all must try to maintain our dreams – the meaning of the rainbow of the title.
Director Warren Carlyle and script adapter Arthur Perlman have trimmed the original script by Harburg and Saidy some 45 minutes and altered the original 1947 ending (which extolled the advent of nuclear energy). At times I missed the even greater political edge of the talky original book (which I first saw in a long-ago revival), but not so much that it intruded on the joy of this production. More importantly, Carlyle and Perlman have introduced dramatically telling changes in the presentation of Finian's Rainbow. First, they have both Jim Norton and Christopher Fitzgerald eschew playing twinkle-eyed, central casting, Disney-ized Irishmen. In a way, the gifted Norton almost plays the part against type, ballasting his portrayal of the Quixotic/cartoonish Finian with an O'Casey-like earthboundness, yet never sacrificing charm or whimsy. Second, the southern white bigotry scenes somehow manage to convey the ugliness of a previous era's racial mores without becoming uncomfortably edgy – as Senator Rawkins and his assistant Buzz Collins, both David Schramm and William Youmans dance this tightrope without ever losing their balance, so skilled is their acting (and the directing).
Finally, in the 1947 original and most previous revivals, the magical change of the bigoted senator from white to black was handled by blackfacing (or masking) the white actor. Even back in 1947 the blackface was understood as satirical by sophisticated New York audiences. Which is not to say that race-blind casting was accepted back then: only three months before Finian's Rainbow opened, Canada Lee appeared on Broadway in The Duchess of Malfi in whiteface, and the Broadway community hailed it as a once-off novelty. And a few weeks before Finian opened in January 1947, Duke Ellington's Beggar's Holiday also showed blacks and whites mixing on stage. (A member of the original 1947 chorus in Finian told me in 2003 that there were some tensions backstage because of the prejudice of some of the cast members.) This production uses an actual black actor as the Senator's black changeling, and in this complex dramatic assignment Chuck Cooper, playing every microscopic nuance of comedy and skin-within-skin self-awareness, absolutely commands and seizes the stage. He is simply extraordinary in this role.
The songs, of course, are glorious, Burton Lane's tunes a panorama of genres from cowboy ("That Great Come and Get It Day") to Cotton Club ("The Begat") to renaissance gavotte (‘Something Sort of Grandish"). I actually prefer "Look to the Rainbow" to Harburg's earlier "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The wonderful original orchestrations by Don Walker and Russell Bennett are intact, if subtly doctored by Larry Moore with string scoring slightly altered and a key changed here or there ("If This Isn't Love," in D in the original, here is lowered a whole step to C). The sound design by Scott Lehrer is less successful. Some shows' sound set-ups are over-sibilant (110 in the Shade). Lehrer's here is boomy and deficient in highs, and it costs the clarity of some of Harburg's mordant lyrics, the political daring of which demands careful listening (two phrases that do clear the ear: "get your beer and your benzedrene" and "Honorary Aryans begat").