The official theatre season is drawing to a close and the shows are opening, fast and furiously…and I’m just talking about the musicals.
Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin, FINIAN’S RAINBOW
I’m still rather basking in the glow of Encores! revival of FINIAN’S RAINBOW. If there’s a more endlessly delightful music score than this one by Burton Lane and genius lyricist E.Y. Harburg, with so many hits – virtually every one of its songs – they can’t even all be squeezed into the overture, I would like to know what that is, and conductor Rob Berman extracted every bit of its charm from the Encores! Orchestra.
Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography perfectly served the piece, snappy and alive to every sexy/comic possibility. John Lee Beatty’s simple set was perfectly serviceable and worked perfectly. Indeed, as the joyous word comes that this will indeed have a Broadway transfer, the producers really don’t have to change a thing, for the now very real sake of economy, as well as its very real stage effectiveness. As for the show’s much-maligned book, a brilliantly easy solution was reached by having black actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson simply take over the part of bigoted villain Senator Rawkins, rather than have Phillip Bosco put on the dreaded, verboten tarbrush. Indeed, one wonders what all the fuss and fury was about concerning the original script by Harburg and Fred Saidy, which helped to stymie a proposed 1990s revival in a more fascistically P.C. era. Lines like “I never read the Constitution, I’m too busy defending it!” and “We got credit! That’s better than cash!” as spoken by the suddenly “enriched’ inhabitants of sleepy, rural Rainbow Valley have a very real timeliness now which the Encores! audience happily lapped up like cream.
Kate Baldwin and the girls of Rainbow Valley
With one exception (an unimaginatively pompous Bosco, who couldn’t remember his lines, even when they were on the script he was reading throughout), we all must fervently hope that there will be no Broadway cast changes, either, as the show was near-faultless in terms of its performers, from top to bottom. As heroine Sharon McLonergan, Kate Baldwin had a highly accurate Irish brogue, and the same could be said of her lilting soprano, making her an entrancing and feisty colleen. As her rapscalion father Finian, Jim Norton mercifully did not overdo the codger adorableness and made the character quite attractively human. Cheyenne Jackson made the ideal dashing, tuneful, good ole boy lover for her, as Woody Mahoney.
Jeremy Bobb and Baldwin
Jeremy Bobb was an utter, surprisingly sexy delight as the leprechaun Og, worlds away from the feyness of David Wayne who originally played him in 1947, and the screeching obnoxiousness of Tommy Steele in the 1968 movie version. Toni-Leslie James wittily costumed him in tight striped shorts which grew suggestively ever shorter as he beecame more and more a mortal. Bobb gave that rare kind of performance, so brimming with sheer likability, originality and pure actor’s joy that it made you really love the performer.
Cheyenne Jackson and the boys of Rainbow Valley
Alina Faye’s dancing of Carlyle’s fresh steps, as the mute Susan Mahoney, who can only express herself choreographically, was so effortlessly lyrical and beautifullycommitted that she completely undercut the snark-inducing silliness of the role.
Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid and Devin Richards as the three Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers did smiling justice to “The Begat” with its irresistibly catchy, smart lyrics (“They begat the babes of the bourgeoisie/Who begat the misbegotten G.O.P.) And there was one wonderful wild card in the cast: Broadway vet Terri White (BARNUM, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’), who, with her elemental growl, ecstatically rocked the distaff soul anthem of the score, “Necessity,” backed up by the most fetching tobacco-shucking female chorus imaginable. (It was White who incited the most passionate discussion among the cognoscenti during the fevered intermission.)
Terri White, absolutely rocking “Necessity”
Baldwin and Jackson certainly did not disappoint when it came to the song everyone most wanted to hear, “Old Devil Moon.” At that point, romance suffused every inch of City Center as every couple present grabbed each other’s hands (like music maestro Steven Blier and his partner sitting in the row in front of us, and, I’m sure, a beamingly content Michael Feinstein with husband Terrence Flannery, elsewhere in the house), making this one very special Saturday night in Gotham.
At this point, I’d also like to make a case for the 1968 film version, Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut, which, like so many of the late ’60s Hollywood musical adaptations, took a severe critical drubbing. I saw it as a kid in Hawaii, at the dear old Deco Kuhio Theatre (across the street from the location legendary gay bar Hula’s would later move into, now, alas, a Niketown). I loved it then and continue to do so. It was Fred Astaire’s cinematic dancing swan song and he went out in glory, having a grand time with the brogue, the songs and, of course, his still miraculously adept stepping.
Petula Clark had a wonderful combative chemistry with him, in the first of her two radiant appearances in the twilight of the Tinseltown musical (the other was in the quite wonderful GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS). I must confess to much preferring Ray Heindorf’s arrangements of the score to – sacrilege! – the 1947 original. Heindorf’s career encompassed work on movie musical classics like 42ND STREET, GOLDDIGGERS OF 1935, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN and THE MUSIC MAN. He combined classicism with a savvy, jazz-inflected approach to material, akin to Nelson Riddle, which resulted in some very tasty, tasteful work, indeed. The film’s score has a bigness and excitement that is pure Hollywood, in the very best sense, making the original cast album seem a rather thin, poky thing.
Don Francks and Petula Clark in the sexiest movie musical number ever
This is never more apparent than in the “Old Devil Moon” sequence, which was so sexy to me at that age that I swear it initiated my puberty in that theater. Rather than the sprightly, dance hall rhythm of the original, Heindorf gave it an almost unbearably sinuous, lush treatment – schtup music if e’er there was. Petula Clark gave it the full benefit of her fetching, melisma-ridden brand of white soul and her partner, Don Franck’s sexily weathered Woody, matches her sensuality with a crooning raffishness that bears more than a whisper of Dean Martin. (And, yes, you will get over the bad toupee.) Although they perform it on a patently obvious studio set – unnaturally green carpeting for grass and a stream that looks like a remnant from some faux Japanese teahouse restaurant – the young Coppola, along with veteran Astaire choreographer Hermes Pan, infuse it with a mesmerizing wealth of physical intimacy and heat in their interplay which make it still the sexiest musical number in screen history.
watch it here:
I will be adding to this post my thoughts about HAIR, TOXIC AVENGER, ROCK OF AGES, FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE and other recent musicals…stay tuned!