Finian’s Rainbow continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 10 May.
Originally subtitled ‘A Musical (Satire) in Two Acts’, Finian’s Rainbow may well have raised a few eyebrows at its Broadway premiere in January 1947, dealing as it does with racial intolerance and political injustice. EY Harburg and Burton Lane’s gentle but pointed invective certainly proved a big hit – indeed, it became the most successful (if possibly only) post-war American musical satire, running on Broadway for 725 performances, and producing popular numbers such as ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra?’, ‘Old Devil Moon’ and ‘If This Isn’t Love’.
The show faired less well on its transfer to London’s West End in October of that year, lasting just 55 performances. Having failed to wow UK audiences, it never returned to London professionally until now, nearly 70 years on, with a revival directed by Phil Willmott at, firstly, the Union Theatre in Southwark and currently the Charing Cross Theatre. And while its themes of bigotry, commercialism and the abuse of power have lost most their edge, it remains a whimsical, joyful show that whisks us back to the golden age of the musical and reminds us of the power that musical theatre has for allegory and fable.
As Willmott admits in his preface to the programme notes, the script is a “pile of gossamer-thin moonshine”. Clearly, the story of Finian McLonegan (James Horne) arriving in the fictional US state of Missitucky, with daughter Sharon (Christina Bennington) in tow, to bury a crock of gold – stolen from a leprechaun – is all nonsense and begorrah Oirishness.
Indeed, its depiction of the Irish is based on a very American, romanticised view of the country and its folk, although it’s all delivered in an innocently affectionate way. (Finian’s Rainbow opened on Broadway three months before that other celtic car crash, Brigadoon.) This aside, it’s a wonderfully old-fashioned show that Willmott’s cast delivers with great energy and enthusiasm from every possible space in the theatre. The choreography by Thomas Michael Voss is particularly effective, enthusing the show with a fantastic vitality, whether from the stage or the aisles.
The cast is also faultless, with strong performances all round. Horne looks like he was born to play the role of Finian, and Bennington as his red-haired daughter has a beautiful voice, quickly setting the bar high with the show’s most well-known song, ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra’. For me, Anne Odeke gives the strongest vocal performance as one of the three gospel singers – originally conceived as a male trio but in this version as three sisters – and Michael J Hayes stands out as the cruel Senator turned saviour.
The music is provided by a small onstage ensemble of keys, guitar and drums (sadly not credited in the programme) led effectively by MD Richard Baker. The arrangements are simple and sufficient, although I would’ve preferred more ambitious accompaniment – it is all very genteel and light. The balance of sound is good, at least, as I’ve had issues in the Charing Cross Theatre with hearing the singing above the band.
As unfair as it sounds, the weakest link in this production is the material itself. It’s dated, unsophisticated stuff – as Willmott says, “an unfashionable folly from a bygone era” – but who cares when it’s performed with such heart and passion. Throw in a few toe-tappers and you can’t help but be enchanted. It might be another 60 years before we see this show again in London, so catch it while you can.