It is difficult to watch something like Finian’s Rainbow a couple of days after a devastating political event like what occurred in the United States on November 8. With its relentless optimism and let’s-solve-our-problems-with-magic pluck, it speaks to a place and a time that is decidedly distant from where we are in this moment. First performed in 1947, Finian’s Rainbow comes from a post-war period of positivity, and the material brims at every turn with a wink and chuckle and a gentle elbow to the ribs.
As I left Irish Repertory’s production on Thursday and spent the next day reflecting on the experience, it caused me to think a lot about the way the outside world affects how we view art – especially theatre with its in-person immediacy. How much can we distance ourselves from the turmoil beyond the theatre’s doors and get lost in the story told? How much should we?
This is not an original question or a unique thought. Brecht spent much of his life investigating this exact quandary. But despite my having spent a fair amount of time with Brecht’s plays and theory, this is the first time that I really understood what he was talking about. I saw two plays in the days following the election and, during both of them, I wanted what was happening on the stage to reflect what was happening in the world. The audience around me did, too. During Finian’s Rainbow, a lyric like “They begat the babbitts of the bourgeoisie / Who begat the misbegotten G.O.P.” received a roar of approval. It happened a few times; a reading of a lyric or a sliver of dialogue connected with the prevailing thoughts circling the house. At one point, the response seemed to catch Melissa Errico, the actress playing Sharon, off guard, as if she had heard the dialogue anew. She offered a tiny nod and continued with the scene.
How do we look at plays and musicals in light of this national shift? How do we read texts more closely, dive into them, and mine them for relevance to today’s issues? Perhaps the most relevant event in Finian’s Rainbow is subplot in which racist Senator Rawkins, played by Dewey Caddell, is, due to a magic crock of gold that grants wishes, “turned black.” In Charlotte Moore’s production, this is accomplished by Caddell crouching on the stage and donning a brown eye mask. It is not entirely convincing or effective, but neither is what happens in the text. Rawkins, as you may have guessed, eventually learns the error of his ways, although not by living the life of a person of color in the racist South, but by being magicked again, this time by a leprechaun who expands his narrow mind as if it were a piece of saltwater taffy. I suppose we can cross our fingers that there is a leprechaun somewhere willing to stretch the mind of Donald Trump.
It is feasible to view something like Finian’s Rainbow as a comfort blanket, a mug of hot chocolate, a hug from an old friend. Escapism is common and sometimes welcome. In order for escapism to be effective, though, it has to be intoxicating. It needs to wash over you and buoy you away. Irish Repertory’s revival does not accomplish this. It is facile, but lacking the zest of joie de vivre that is required.
Charlotte Moore’s adaptation whittles down the dialogue into brisk snippets between songs, which would be fine if this were a concert production meant to let the songs shine. Finian’s Rainbow is already plagued by myriad bits of plot (including, but not limited to: back taxes owed on a tobacco plantation, a crop shortage, the aforementioned racism, a love triangle between two humans and a leprechaun, a stolen crock of gold, which is then misplaced, a line of credit opened at a department store that spurs the entire town to spend beyond their means, etc.). By chopping the text down, Moore does not allow any of these threads to fully develop or for their stakes to be fully raised. The result is a procession of scenes in which characters come onto the stage, state their objective, sing a song, and leave. Then in the second act, it is all repeated so that everything is resolved. There is no investment in character; it doesn’t really matter how anything pans out.
The set design by James Morgan dominates the tiny stage at Irish Rep with an unusable veranda space at stage right on which none of the staging takes place, but serves as a seating area for the actors when they are not in the current scene. The back of the stage is filled with the orchestra, who all seem to be having a fantastic time, including music director Geraldine Anello who mouths along with the actors during almost every song. This use of space leaves a truncated rectangle downstage in which the entire show must transpire. The compactness of the space is felt most claustrophobically when the entire company begins to dance at the end of the first act and one of the actors brings out a tambourine that is the loudest thing we’ve heard all night.
The performances are all adequate, given the production’s limitations. Melissa Errico as Sharon and Ryan Silverman as Woody lack a discernible chemistry as the show’s romantic pair, but their singing is warm and they do justice to the musical numbers. A particular standout is the great Ken Jennings as Finian, fully embodying the Irish humor and heart of the title character. When Finian says goodbye to his daughter and returns to Ireland at the end, it is the production’s most powerful moment.
Finian has given Sharon the gift of hope via a mantra that she sings early in the show and is then reprised throughout: “Look, look, look to the rainbow. / Follow it over the hills and stream. / Look, look, look to the rainbow. / Follow the fellow who follows a dream.” The full company sings this to the audience at the end of Irish Repertory’s Finian’s Rainbow, and, at least on the night I was there, they were imploring us to listen and take it to heart. Maybe the show is speaking to us and offering us advice: we are the women and men who must follow our dreams for the kind of country we’d like to have and we must encourage others to do the same.