Posts Tagged ‘Finian’s Rainbow’

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

February 26, 2014

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.)

Review – Flahooley – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

May 22, 2012

It’s now three years into the Lost Musicals series for me, and I have to say I was checking and rechecking both the Sadler’s Wells and the Lost Musicals webpages this spring hoping for details of this year’s shows. Disappointingly, there are only two shows this time around, but I booked dutifully and showed up at the Lilian Baylis studio last Sunday for Flahooley. Sadly, due to this last-minute scheduling, I wasn’t able to stay for all of it – but I’ve got a guest review to fill in the details of what I missed.

As ever, the show opened with Ian Marshall Fisher giving us background on the show, which I’ve semi-transcribed:

The book and lyrics are by E. Y. “Yip” Harvo, a “sprightly and annoying” poetic genius. His first job was at a light bulb company in the 20s (shades of Charles Dickens at the blacking factory!). When the factory went down the tubes during the Depression, Harvo’s school buddy Ira Gershwin invited him to be a lyricist. His first hit song was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime;” these days, he’s best known for “Over the Rainbow”. Both were songs with not just pretty words, but meaning, with words that made people smile while ingesting his philosophy … a philosophy that later cost him his career.

Yip’s big success was Finian’s Rainbow (about how whites treated blacks in the 40s – I did not know this as I’ve never seen it). But after World War II he was blacklisted as a commie. Being a socialist actually wasn’t that uncommon for a Jewish first generation American – but in the 50s the “communist threat” became an obsession for the country. The McCarthy hearings were broadcast daily, with celebrities and other prominent people in a chair, on national TV, being grilled with one main question: “Were you a communist?” Many had been, maybe 20 years earlier. Lots of people informed on their friends to save themselves. Jerry Robbins was one of those who named names, destroying the career of Zero Mostel. Once Yip was named a lefty, his jobs dried up and he went back to NYC. But once he was there, producer Cheryl Crawford producer (from the Group Theater in Chicago) invited him to do a show with her. This became “Flahooley,” a show that on the outside is fairy tale yet lampoons Western history and capitalism. But America wasn’t ready for it, what with the general feelings in the air and the Korean War. It was seen as Anti-American, a play that made fun of what had “made us successful.” It had only 40 performances before it closed.

The original show had one famous person: Peruvian Yma Sumac, who was a big star at the time with a five octave vocal range. (The part of Princess Najla is clearly written for her, based on what I heard sung during the show – nice work, Margaret Preece!) Other (later) famous faces were Jerome Portland and Barbara Cook.

Flahooley also requires a certain amount of familiarity with 1950s American slang to get the jokes. Remember that Ike is president, pediatrician Dr Spock and psychotherapy are popular, and loyalty tests are rampant. On TV was comedian Milton Beryl and kiddy TV shows Hopalong Cassidy and Kukla Fran and Ollie (a puppet show). References are also made to beanie hats, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (known for her funny hats), S.N.A.F.U. (used to rhyme “snafuly,” very clever!), serotan (a laxative typically named by spelling the word “nature” backward), and drugstore Walgreens (still in business).

Be warned, though: despite the left leanings of the author, some of the dialogue may not pass the standards of the modern audience. Sample:
Saudi ambassador (to president of toy company, B.G. Bigelow): Salaam aleikum.
B.G. Bigelow: Shish kebab.

So: how was the show? Well, I enjoyed the constant railing against the silly aspects of capitalism wrapped around a gentle story about a romance in a toy factory. The dialogue was clever at a level modern shows can’t meet, though the songs weren’t as memorable as I would have liked (despite the two wonderful nonsense songs sung by Princess Najla). I left at the interval (1:50 later) … here’s a review by David G on the entire show.

“The musical Flahooley is an uneasy clash of themes. Part critique of witch-hunts by a writer who’d just been blacklisted from Hollywood at the height of McCarthyism, part satire of American capitalism by a socialist, part magical tale of an Arabian genie by the lyricist of Wizard on Oz, and part standard boy-meets-girl-and-finally-wins-her-by-buying-her-a-balloon love story, it never quite manages to knit the strands together into a coherent whole. On Broadway, it ran for just 40 performances before closing, and that was after having been refined and toned down during provincial previews.

“Flawed though it is, it works very well as a Lost Musical, where it’s performed in a concert setting with minimal choreography. Flahooley is set in a toy factory, and the original performance made extensive use of puppets in some scenes; these are, admittedly, hard to realize in the Lost Musicals format and are at times confusing. But there is still much to love in the lyrics and the music, including the exquisite juxtaposition of the townspeople singing about their belief in Santa Claus with the appearance of a genie who ruins their economy by … creating and giving out free toys.

“So, yes, at times Flahooley has a confusing plot and uneven tone, but there is more than enough of interest to make it well worth a revival by the Lost Musicals team.”

You know, I may just try to go back and see the rest of it …

LATER: Wow, this play was even more subversive than I thought! Per Wikipedia: “Following the original book, the doll exclaimed “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing, went to sleep when you fed it phenobarbital, woke up when you fed it benzedrine (a drug also referenced in Finian’s) and had the stated purpose of teaching children how to be good Americans.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, May20th, 2012. Flahooley continues through June 3rd.)