Review: ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ and the Perils of a Pot of Gold




Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman in the musical “Finian’s Rainbow.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Though Og the leprechaun doesn’t look a day over 25, no one in the audience at the Irish Repertory Theater gasps when he confesses he’s 459 years old. But there might be some murmurs of incredulity should the sweet colleen he’s been duetting with step forward to declare she’s a 46-year-old mother of three who first played this part on this stage in 2004.

I’m referring to the sterling-voiced Broadway actress Melissa Errico, who stars in the big-hearted, small-scale production of “Finian’s Rainbow” that opened on Sunday night in an adaptation by its director, Charlotte Moore. (Og is portrayed, quite enchantingly, by Mark Evans, who, by the way, is 31.)

Normally, I wouldn’t be so ungallant as to dwell on a performer’s age. But since Ms. Errico recently wrote an essay for The New York Times in which she wondered if she’d passed her sell-by date as an ingénue, it is she who has placed that particular elephant in the room. Happily, the elephant is invisible.

Ms. Errico is, if anything, even more persuasive as Sharon, an Irish lass newly arrived on American soil, than when I saw her in the role a dozen years ago. The character has a new, welcome earthiness that summons Sharon’s proud connections to the land, and Ms. Errico throughout emanates an easy, robust glow of pleasure that illuminates the stage. It goes without saying that she sings divinely.

The question of how well “Finian’s Rainbow” has aged since it made its Broadway debut in 1947 inspires a less affirmative response. The score, by Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg, is one of the most enduringly delicious ever concocted for an American musical. The book, by Mr. Harburg and Fred Saidy, is more perishable, a mix of high whimsy (the word “pixified” occurs more than once) and topical satire.

Key elements of its plot include a leprechaun’s pot of gold — stolen by the title character, Sharon’s blarney-filled pa (Ken Jennings) — and a racist Southern senator (Dewey Caddell) of the state of Missitucky (I warned you about the whimsy) who learns the error of his mind-set when he is magically transformed from white to black.


Ms. Errico as an Irish lass newly arrived in America.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When the show was last revived on Broadway in 2009, in a version that originated as an Encores! concert production at City Center, it received embracing reviews but ran for only 15 weeks. A small space like the Irish Rep, where going to the theater can feel like visiting an old friend at home, may be a more suitable setting for “Finian’s Rainbow.”

In any case, Ms. Moore has come up with a very companionable interpretation, which runs a fleet two hours and acknowledges the material’s strengths and weaknesses with a parental fondness. The show, designed by James Morgan as a kitschy American-style Arcadian bower, may sound hokey when it speaks, but when it raises its voice to sing (oh, the bliss of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “Old Devil Moon”), it flies to immortal heights.

The likable and polished ensemble does not acknowledge any such disparity, nor should it. Its members include Ryan Silverman (a natural leading man, who appeared with Ms. Errico in the Classic Stage Company revival of “Passion”) as Sharon’s idealistic beau, Woody; and Lyrica Woodruff as his sister, Susan the Silent, who dances most of her dialogue.

As graceful as Ms. Woodruff is, I personally prefer the alternative language of the singing sharecroppers, led by Angela Grovey, who express their joys and tribulations via gospel and jazz, and even scat. The cast is accompanied by a flexible, four-piece, onstage mini-orchestra, which (this being “Finian’s Rainbow”) crucially includes a harp.

Mr. Jennings (not to be confused with the “Jeopardy!” champion) is a very creditable Finian, who doesn’t oversell the roguish Gaelic twinkle, though it gave me pause to realize that I saw him as Mrs. Lovett’s pet urchin, Toby, in the original “Sweeney Todd” in 1979. It’s enough to make a person — well, a pretentious person — lament, “O, tempus fugit!”

You know, time flies. The good news is that time flies in another, more benign way in this production; you could even say time is suspended.

After all, “Finian’s Rainbow” occupies its own special real estate in the universe of musical fantasy. It’s a place where talented people can be any age they choose, and where a racially divided American South can resolve its tensions with a sprinkling of gold fairy dust and a swell, soaring song. It is a fine little corner, in other words, in which to escape the shrill din of a contentious political fall.

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