Leaves are decaying in soggy piles in the city’s parks, and the first cold snap has come and gone, awakening anxiety about the prospect of a chilly winter. But permanent sunshine can confidently be predicted for the vicinity of the St. James Theater, where the joyous revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” opened on Thursday night.
Here is where you should head this fall to warm your soul amid the diversions of that ever-great and ever-endangered American art form, musical comedy. All the comforting pleasures of the genre — infectious song, exuberant dancing, jokes both lovably corny and unexpectedly fresh, and of course the satisfying pairing of a him and a her — are on abundant display in this thoroughly winning production, a welcome picker-upper in an uneven Broadway season.
The latest transfer from the beloved City Center Encores! series of musicals in concert, “Finian’s Rainbow” is also the most unlikely. Pretty much nobody expected to see this oddity cavorting beneath a Broadway proscenium again, although the original production was a solid hit that ran for a year and a half when it opened in 1947. Since then the show has come to be considered too corny, too confused, too tainted by misconceptions about its racial politics.
Consider, if you will, the recipe, seemingly cooked up by somebody hitting the whiskey bottle a little too hard. Among the primary cast of characters: one leprechaun, one mute young woman who dances her dialogue, one racist politician who turns from white to black and back again. Locale: Missitucky, a fictional state in the American South where black and white sharecroppers live together in friendly harmony, harvesting tobacco leaves when they are not raising their voices in song. Primary plot device: a purloined pot of gold bestowing the ability to make wishes come true.
But beautiful music has a way of binding together the most unlikely materials, and the score for “Finian’s Rainbow,” by the lyricist E. Y. Harburg and the composer Burton Lane, is itself an overflowing pot of memorable songs, by turns yearning and bouncy, mocking and sincere, soft as a rose petal and clever as a crossword.
Under the nimble direction of Warren Carlyle, who also supplies the buoyant choreography, this bounteous score is being sung with lively conviction by a cast of Broadway regulars and veterans, and one confident newcomer. The morning after seeing “Finian’s Rainbow,” you may well find yourself shaking your head at the absurdities of the book by Mr. Harburg and Fred Saidy, a tipsy jumble of romance, fantasy and satire. (Topics of surprising renewed relevance: the seductions of living on easy credit, the perils of foreclosure, the “misbegotten G.O.P.”) But you will remember, above all, the soaring lift of the music.
To call Kate Baldwin a newcomer is perhaps an overstatement. Ms. Baldwin has appeared on Broadway before and has a solid list of regional and Off Broadway credits. But never has she made the bewitching impression she does here. The show’s first moment of magic arrives shortly after Ms. Baldwin’s Sharon McLonergan descends the green hills of Missitucky with her enterprising father, the rainbow-chaser of the title, played by the reliably delightful Jim Norton (a Tony winner for “The Seafarer”).
Finian has noted the resemblance to their Irish hometown, where the skylarks sing the same tunes. Sharon senses it too. Feeling a twinge of homesickness, she pauses to sing one of the score’s most famous numbers, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” Ms. Baldwin’s cool, pure soprano gently rides the crests of the undulant melody, tugging at each question in the lyric with a sensitivity that perfectly expresses the song’s tender, yearning essence.
The tune is folk-simple, the words drenched in stock ideas of Irishness, but as performed with both sophistication and sincerity by Ms. Baldwin, it has the distilled beauty of an art song. The crinkling blue eyes of Mr. Norton’s Finian, the classic sentimental Irishman, are soon misted over with longing, but he may not be the only one in the house in need of a handkerchief.
Such magic occurs whenever Ms. Baldwin has a chance to sing; happily, this is often. She is well paired with the easygoing charmer Cheyenne Jackson as the local boy Woody, who is snared almost as soon as he sets eyes on Sharon — or as soon as Finian sets eyes on this promising prospect for his daughter. Their gleaming voices blend smoothly on the show’s other well-known song, “Old Devil Moon,” a softly swinging duet about the strange magic that turns the boy or girl next door into an object of celestial attraction.
The notion is reprised in a more impish spirit in “Something Sort of Grandish,” Sharon’s tongue-twisting duet with her other admirer, a leprechaun-on-the-lam named Og, played with zesty, bug-eyed brio by the talented comic actor Christopher Fitzgerald. Og is also drawn to Woody’s sister, Susan (Alina Faye), the aforementioned dancing mute. Ms. Faye performs Mr. Carlyle’s choreography, which deftly blends the brisk rhythms of Irish step dancing with the vocabulary of classical ballet, with a clean, bright attack.
When the characters in “Finian’s Rainbow” are not swooning beneath a heart-smiting moon, they are caught up in a complicated plot pitting the good ol’ boy Senator Rawkins (a boisterously oily David Schramm) and his minions against the poor sharecroppers looking to Woody for leadership. From this, the more comic side of the score, come the gospel-inflected showstoppers “Necessity,” sung with burly gusto and wry flair by Terri White, and the rhythmic quartet “The Begat,” led with equal charisma and vocal command by Chuck Cooper, who plays the senator miraculously transformed into a black man.
How’s that, exactly? Never mind. The charms of “Finian’s Rainbow” do not reside in the delicacies of its plotting. And Mr. Carlyle and the show’s producers seem to have concluded that trying to upgrade the bare-bones scenery from the Encores! production was not really necessary either. Although the orchestra, under the attentive baton of the musical supervisor Rob Berman, has been moved into the pit (not the case with other Broadway transfers from the series), the set designs by John Lee Beatty have been only modestly upgraded. By the standards of today’s hyper-glossy Broadway musicals, the show looks cheap, performed as it is amid a sea of green cheesecloth.
Still, it’s the songs and the singers that matter here — even the less musically adept cast members. I cannot think of an actor I cherish more than Mr. Norton, whose performances in the plays of Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “Dublin Carol” and “Port Authority,” in addition to “Seafarer”) compose a body of work unsurpassed in its artistry, humanity and truth by that of any actor in New York in the past decade. But I freely admit I never expected — or for that matter wanted — to see him singing and dancing in a Broadway musical.
Well, here he is, carrying a tune a little gingerly, as if it were a newborn kitten he’s in danger of dropping, and leaping skyward with an enthusiasm to match anyone’s onstage. Better yet, Mr. Norton brings to his potentially stereotypical role, that of the wily-lovable Irishman with a fondness for drink, the very qualities I mentioned before, which can be scarce in confectionary Broadway musicals new or old: namely, artistry, humanity and truth.
What better time for a show that makes gentle mockery of that incurable habit of building the illusion of wealth on nothing more than a dream and a credit line, while also offering the rose-tinted consolation that such folly will turn out fine in the end? But it's not so much the uncanny appropriateness of its pixified fairy tale as the enveloping warmth of Burton Lane's melodies and the spry wit of Yip Harburg's lyrics that make "Finian's Rainbow" such an infectious charmer. Rather than try to get around the 1947 musical's daffy story by hammering the social satire, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle and his winning cast simply embrace its quaint idiosyncrasies.
An expanded version of the Encores! concert staging from March, the production pretty much banishes concerns about the over-complicated plotting and reform-minded preachiness of Harburg and Fred Saidy's book, skillfully adapted by Harburg archivist Arthur Perlman. From the moment music director Rob Berman raises his lighter-than-air baton on the show's soaring overture, blissful surrender is the only option.
A patchwork scrim reveals John Lee Beatty's Technicolor-hued picture-book set depicting a verdant valley in the mythical state of Missitucky, where rascally Irishman Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton) arrives with daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin). Armed with a pot of gold "borrowed" from leprechaun Og (Christopher Fitzgerald), Finian's plan is to bury the loot in the shadow of Fort Knox, then watch it multiply.
The McLonergans bail out a community of poor sharecroppers whose land is threatened by the filibustering machinations of bigoted Sen. Rawkins (David Schramm). Sharon falls instantly in love with local boy Woody (Cheyenne Jackson) and inadvertently turns the white senator black (with Chuck Cooper stepping into the role) via one of the pot of gold's three wishes. Meanwhile, deprived of his magic, Og attempts to locate the treasure and halt his gradual transformation to human form.
If all this sounds like a crock of pure escapist whimsy, well, it is. But the humor is surprisingly durable, while the jokes about race relations, suspect banking practices, corrupt politics and rampant consumer lust still hit the target. Intermission is bookended by matching anthems to our acquisitive culture, with "That Great 'Come-and-Get-It' Day" exhorting the Rainbow Valley residents to buy now, pay later, while "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" illustrates the boost in status a little shopping can bring.
Much of the credit for the revival's appeal goes to astute casting. Norton made a memorably sly and sozzled Dubliner in "The Seafarer" two seasons back, and he delivers a more benign version of that twinkly stereotype here, dignifying it with soulfulness, nimble physicality and a gentle comic touch.
Jackson's supple voice and relaxed leading-man confidence are a smooth fit for Woody, while Baldwin, mostly seen on Broadway up to now in secondary roles or replacement casts, is a revelation. A Maureen O'Hara-type beauty with an agreeably feisty manner and a crystal-clear soprano, she makes gorgeous work of her wistful solo "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and sings gloriously with Jackson and other cast members on such standards as "Old Devil Moon" and "Look to the Rainbow."
Fitzgerald's vaudevillian musical comedy skills are put to excellent use as the Cole Porter-quoting Og, his kelly-green suit steadily shrinking as his mortality takes hold. He also socks across the hilarious "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," an unapologetic confession of romantic opportunism that exemplifies Harburg's facility for clever rhymes: "Ev'ry femme that flutters by me/Is a flame that must be fanned/When I can't fondle the hand I'm fond of/I fondle the hand at hand."
Terri White scores big in the showstopper "Necessity," a fired-up spiritual about the burdens of work. Schramm makes Rawkins an amusing blowhard ("The festering tides of radicalism are upon us!"), while Cooper is a fine physical match as his black doppelganger, turning on some Cab Calloway showmanship in the rousing quartet number, "The Begat." Guy Davis blows sweet harmonica on "Dance of the Golden Crock," while Alina Faye, as Woody's mute sister, Susan, responds in lissome ballet to his every phrase.
With a nod to the exhilarating moves of original choreographer Michael Kidd, Carlyle blends classical with Celtic with hoedown to buoyant effect. That eclecticism perfectly complements the textural richness of the music, which folds together gospel, blues, traditional folk strains, mellow jazz and show tunes into one of Broadway's most consistently melodious scores, heard here in Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker's lush original orchestrations.
Scott Lehrer's crisp sound design, Toni-Leslie James' characterful costumes and Ken Billington's sugar-kissed lighting complete the enchanting package.