ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Finian's Rainbow and Off-Broadway's Vanities

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Broadway's Finian's Rainbow and Off-Broadway's Vanities
 
We listen to the cast album of the 2009 Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, plus last summer's musicalization of Vanities.

*

FINIAN'S RAINBOW [PS Classics PS-1008]
How are things in Missitucky? Very fine, this time of the year. Missitucky, of course, is that mythical valley in the environs of Fort Knox; a place where gold is planted in the ground, competing with the local sharecropper's tobacco for mineral-rich nutrients. All of it spun from the fertile mind of one Yip Harburg, a fabled leprechaun from the Lower East Side who planted socially significant ideas while blithely sprouting previously unimagined verbs and adjectives. Finian's Rainbow has come and gone. The new revival began its career in March 2009 as an Encores! concert. With three key cast changes and additional rehearsal time for director-choreographer Warren Carlyle to enhance his work on the dance-heavy show, Finian's Rainbow was transplanted in October to that fertile musical-comedy plot on 44th Street known as the St. James. Critical reaction was ecstatic, and understandably so. So was the response from most diehard musical comedy fans, thrilled by Burton Lane's golden melodies and the slyly sophisticated work of Mr. Harburg and his frequent cohort Fred Saidy. Other theatregoers found this playfully literate 1947 fantasy somewhat too tame; in a world of flash and brash and high-decibel power-ballads, Finian's Rainbow can rightfully be faulted for being merely — well, what? Merely brilliant?

That being the case, this Finian's Rainbow ended its journey after 92 performances. Not a success for the investors, certainly, nor for the performers who surely would have appreciated a few more months of well-deserved paychecks, as well as the opportunity to perform what must have been an enjoyable and rewarding show to play. For audiences, though, this 2009 revival of Finian's Rainbow was a grand success. Theatregoers — at least those in the environs of Times Square — finally had the chance to see Finian's Rainbow, which had been absent from town for 50 years. The chance to see it once or twice, the chance to see it delivered in a finely-spirited and fully-orchestrated manner. A grand success, yes; or maybe we should call it a grandish, sugarcandish succesh?

If the crock of gold has been uprooted, the stray specks of gold-dust swept away, and the rainbow patches warehoused — displaced by American Idiots, I suppose you could say — the Finian's Rainbow troupe has left behind a terrifish magnifish delish CD to keep the rainbow in the skies and our collective ears riding on clouds of gossamer harp strings. Or some such verbiage; where is Mr. Harburg when we need him? Kate Baldwin gets the vocal honors, as the ador-a-bell Sharon McLonergan. She is fairly well-matched by Cheyenne Jackson, as Woody. I think it's fair to say that Mr. Jackson doesn't have the shake-the-rafters voice of his Broadway predecessors in the role, David Richards and Biff McGuire (who played the 1960 revival); but both Mr. Richards and Mr. McGuire combined can't hold a candle to Mr. Jackson's charisma, or razzle-dazzle either. (Leave it to Mr. Harburg to make razzle-dazzle fodder for song lyrics; if Mr. Ebb later used the phrase to more notable effect, I'd like to think that he was tipping his hat to Yip.) Christopher Fitzgerald makes a fine Og, exulting in his two solos (the exemplary "Something Sort of Grandish and the superb "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love"). Jim Norton was central to the production as Finian; his singing role is considerably lesser than that of his three cohorts, but he makes a good showing on the CD.

Standing out, in the theatre and on the recording as well, is Terri White. Ms. White, who made a name for herself on the very same St. James stage in 1980 in Barnum, makes an outright necessity of "Necessity" and shines in her various other solo lines. She is playing what was originally a nameless chorus role, here somewhat beefed up and given the name "Dottie." But even if White had been restricted to the solo lines of her group number, methinks that voice would have made her stand out from the group. Much was made in the local press of Ms. White's off-stage travails; a combination of bad luck, bad economics, and "the monkey wrench in a fellow's good intention" left her homeless, sleeping on a park bench in Washington Square Park. In this case good friends, good luck, and a good casting director brought her triumphantly back to Broadway. It was Ms. White's talent, though, that clinched the deal.

There are two prior Broadway albums of Finian's Rainbow, both with things to recommend them. This one is more complete, more audible (especially compared to the 1947 album, one of the very first from Columbia), and more enchanting than the others. Rob Berman shepherded Finian's Rainbow from Encores! to Broadway, and brought with him the most lustrous pit orchestra heard on Broadway since South Pacific took up residence at Lincoln Center. The original orchestrations, buoyed by a bewitching harp, are by Russell Bennett and Don Walker. Russell was fired, actually, and thrilled to get away from the tryout. Don took over from there, with Russell later sending over an overture in time for the Broadway opening. First person reports from Bennett, Walker, and conductor Milton Rosenstock indicate that everybody hated everybody. Starting from the first rehearsal, at which I'm told Harburg so insulted Lane that the composer stormed out in anger that never did dissipate. Whatever the case may be, Harburg and Lane wrote a dozen imperishable songs for the Rainbow.

Finian's Rainbow at the St. James Theatre? Gone. Finian's Rainbow on PS Classics? Here forever, and ain't that grandish indeed?

VANITIES [Ghostlight 8-4437]
Vanities, Jack Heifner's long-running 1976 Off-Broadway comedy, told of three Texas cheerleaders who get together over the years, demonstrating that life ain't always what you expect it to be. (The opening scene, preparing for a high school prep rally, takes place on November 22, 1963; hmmm.) Vanities began life at Playwrights Horizons was a major, mass-produceable hit; but this was a long time ago, so long that one of those bright and perky teenagers was played by Kathy Bates. Thirty years later, much of what seemed novel back then seems old-fashioned and cliched. It's hard to tell how a revival of Vanities would fare; last season's musical adaptation, though, was unable to negotiate the pitfalls. Vanities, the musical, led a somewhat checkered life. A 2006 production at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto led to an August 2008 production at the Pasadena Playhouse. This in turn resulted in a February 2009 booking at Broadway's Lyceum, which was ultimately canceled due to the poor economy. The scale of the production was cut back down to Off-Broadway size, with a July 2009 production at Second Stage. Vanities revealed itself as pleasant but mild, not quite the sort of thing you want in a modern-day musical, and closed within the month. Mr. Heifner provided the book; Judith Ivey, better known in these parts as a fine performer, directed; and Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles and Anneliese van der Pol played the girls in front of the vanities. A CD of this Vanities has come along, presumably in the hopes of encouraging a stock and amateur life.

A play set in three distinct and recent eras more or less dictates a score touching on a bit of this, a bit of that, and a bit of the other. This seems to have tied the hands of composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum. There is some nice writing here and there — "Cute Boys with Short Haircuts" especially so — but we keep hearing flavorful but counterproductive vestiges of the '60s and '70s. Mr. Kirshenbaum was working with some of the same strictures in his first major musical, Summer of '42; the two scores, combined, lead me to believe that he is a talented composer. Now, let's hear what he sounds like when he is not forced to recreate the swing era, the Bacharach era, or the like.

(Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

Today’s Most Popular News: