Review – Finian’s Rainbow – Phil Willmott at Union Theater

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When I hear people complain about musicals – and by people, I mean people who just don’t like musicals – the theme tends to be that they just don’t make sense. People suddenly burst into song – this is seen as unusual by people who haven’t sat near me at 4:50 on a Friday afternoon – and the plots are frothy.

Now, I’ll agree that if you watch Hollywood musicals of the 30s or stage musicals of the 20s and 30s, the plots are at times little more than excuses to string together some songs, much in the same way pasties and g-strings work for strippers. The plot is not the point. And for some shows, there isn’t even a plot: it really is just songs and skits, what I consider a musical revue.

There is certainly plenty of room for acting in musicals, and I for one do like to have a plot of at least the gauzy dress variety. But I give up a certain adherence to logic when I go to musicals, because what I’m frequently hoping for is to be transported – to be wrapped in an experience of singing, music, and dance that causes my more critical faculties to be poofed away like the fuzz on the head of a dandelion. It’s a cruel world out there, and I swear on a stack of bibles that a good tap dance routine does a lot to sweeten the burden that is life. It does for me, anyway.

Finian’s Rainbow is exactly the kind of sweet, goofy show you want to go to when you need a little something to chase the blues away, when a love story with a happy ending that sends you out the door whistling a jaunty tune is just what the doctor ordered. The plot, about Irish immigrants who bring a leprechaun with them to Depression-era rural Tennessee, wins all of the points for imagination, with no pretense at believability. We’ve got a pot of gold, we’ve got a girl who talks with her feet, we’ve got wishes being granted right and left. God knows mine were, because the songs of Finian’s Rainbow are no fairy gold – they’re true-blue, best of the songbook standards of a quality you’d could spend a year watching new musicals without seeing once. “Old Devil Moon,” “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” I had never heard these songs in context before but I couldn’t believe how lush they were.

Of course, it helped tremendously that the leads had very strong pipes. Christina Bennington is especially magnetic as Sharon; not only does she have a sweet, true voice, but even when she was just listening to other people speak, her charisma held the stage. Joesph Peters is a nice dueter as Woody Mahoney, but his character slides a bit too far to caricature to be compelling. Sadly, a trick was missed with Raymond Walsh’s Og; his big solo could have been a real show-stopper but was instead pleasant but low on calories. Ah well, Laura Bella Griffin’s silent Susan Mahoney managed to say it with her feet; in fact, the dancing in general knocked the walls back. How did they get so much movement in such a small space? As ever, the effect of all of this in the Union is just overwhelming, a kind of theatrical high – some 22 actors all singing in harmony, and dancing, from two feet away and on all sides? It’s the kind of experience you’ll get nowhere else in London, like one of those sound experiments when you have a speaker on each side of you and you feel like you’re actually there. Only, in this case, you are, and it’s really heady fun.

In a time when the government is working on kicking the poor out of every place they live and build their communities, whether through a bedroom tax or simply shipping subsidized housing (and the people that live in it) away from jobs and off to the hinterlands, the “message” of Finian’s Rainbow is actually still quite relevant, although the community it depicts, with people of all races living together peacefully, still seems a bit of a dream. But it’s a dream I enjoyed watching playing out in front of me (I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a black character in a play from the 40s talking about going to Tuskegee University!). Even if this play is a little slice of fantasy, it was the flavor I gobbled up hungrily. And if the musical equivalent of dessert is what’s on your menu tonight, you could hardly do better than Finian’s Rainbow.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. It continues through March 15th.)

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