“Merciful heaven it’s a crock!”
It’s a brave show that risks a line that. And yes, of course, we tittered inappropriately. But Finian’s Rainbow is in some ways brave. It’s certainly utterly bonkers.
Not seen in the West End since its 1947 UK debut at the Palace where it ran for only 55 performances. What audiences made of it 67 years ago is anyone’s guess.
An elderly Irishman, Finian McLonegan (James Horne) moves to the fictional US state of Missitucky bringing along his granddaughter Sharon (Christina Bennington, terrific) and a misappropriated pot of gold that he intends to bury (just the pot, not his daughter) near Fort Knox in the hope that it will grow into a forest of gold. They’re pursued by Og (Raymond Walsh), a 459 year-old leprechaun with “pixiefied fancies” and “a peculiar feeling in me thighs” who wants his crock back or he’ll turn into a human.
Throw in a couple of romances, the closure of a tobacco factory, a drought, a good Gone With the Wind gag, a bigoted Senator (Michael J Hayes) “so racist he doesn’t like black-eyed peas” and a mute girl, Susan the Silent (Laura Bella Griffin) who can only communicate through the medium of dance and you’ll wonder quite what E.Y. Harburg (Wizard of Oz etc.) and Fred Saidy were taking when they came up with the plot.
You can accuse Finian’s Rainbow of a lot of things – it’s fairly unique in attempting to tackle racism whilst suffering accusations of racism itself – but you can’t say it hasn’t got a memorable score. It’s bursting at the seams with hummable ditties.
One problem in this weird mishmash of social significance and whimsy is that it dispenses with all its familiar standards “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”, “Look to the Rainbow” “Old Devil Moon” and “If This Isn’t Love” well before the end of Act 1, though most come back as reprises in Act 2.
But there’s other good stuff tucked away in the rest of the score (music by the man credited with discovering Judy Garland, Burton Lane and lyrics by E. Y. Harburg). There’s some gospel influences, the crackingly performed “Necessity” led by Anne Odeke with a percussive spoons/enamel bowls backing and a decent bit of comedic social satire in the Act 2 opener “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich”.
It helped Phil expunge memories of the awful 1968 film* with its rather bizarre cast of Fred Astaire, Petula Clark and Tommy Steele, which, even more bizarrely, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Apparently Dick Van Dyke was originally going to play the Astaire role. Sadly his Irish accent must remain a thing of our dreams.
And whilst we’re on the subject of bizarre, who takes a baby into a theatre with them? One number had the misfortune of being performed with backing vocals from a screaming baby. Phil hadn’t witnessed such a strange child-related theatre incident since a well-known personality thought it was acceptable to breastfeed during the opening night of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Lyric Hammersmith. Apparently celebrity milk doesn’t stop for anything.
But back to this production. You can take the show out of the fringe, but you can’t take the fringe out of the show. The sets probably looked fine at the Union Theatre but a little more money wouldn’t have gone amiss for the transfer. We looked to the rainbow but didn’t see one. No rainbow? Tsk!
The spirited dancing from such a huge company must have been extraordinary in such a confined space (choreography Thomas Michael Voss), at the Charing Cross they spill into the auditorium at every opportunity. Perhaps the cast were looking to remove that mother and baby. Who could blame them?
Director Phil Willmott has put significant zip into the proceedings, impressively bringing it all in in just 2 hours (including interval). The score is a cracker. Phil was humming the songs all the way home and hasn’t stopped yet. And any show that can get away with lines like “Come on Grampa let’s go dancing in the barn” is definitely worth a look, especially if it might be another 67 years before it resurfaces again. We don’t expect to be available. Unless we turn into leprechauns.
But best of all, there’s no Tommy Steele. Phew.
* An animated version with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and other ‘names’ voicing was planned but never completed. You can read about what happened and see some early sketches for it here.