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Finian's Rainbow

"Why are you crying?" —Sharon
" It's that cheap Irish music!"
Finian's Rainbow
Ensemble in Finian's Rainbow (Photo: Scott Rylander)
In the small space of the Union Theatre where every seat has a good view of the stage, is the first London professional production of Finian's Rainbow since its opening in London in 1947. Many of the songs are classics, really good tunes that you will know. So why has it been neglected? The explanation is the book which superficially appears to be full of Irish whimsy and silliness with a leprechaun and pots of gold at the bottom of a rainbow, and the idea that if you plant gold it will grow. Tie this mythology in with a sentimental view of Ireland and you'll understand why Finian's Rainbow has done so much better in America than in England.

So why with this background can I heartily recommend the Union's current production of Finian's Rainbow? Using Charlotte Moore's adaptation from 2003/4 (Curtainup's review of Moore's adaptation at her own Irish Rep Theatre in NY ) Phil Willmott's production has full thrilling choreography from the brilliant ballroom dance choreographer Thomas Michael Voss.

Fresh faced girls in vintage 1940s frocks are digging and slapping, farming on the land and banging spoons on metal dishes — it's just glorious! Three men dance high and jump, exciting stuff. I loved the black singers led by Anne Odeke as the Senator's Maid in "Necessity". Her powerful voice is fabulous and I was hoping for an encore of "Necessity" with its gospel rhythms.

The opening song "This Time of Year" feels deeply ironic as the American farmers hope for rain for their crops and are facing drought, when we in London are experiencing the worst flooding for a hundred years. Christina Bennington as amber haired Sharon, the heroine, sings and dances in solid farming boots and wins the heart of the handsome guitar playing, Woody Mahoney (Joseph Peters), who walks in with a wonderful cowboy swagger. The threatened separation, when Woody has to go back to New York to earn money to bring back to subsidise the farming community to pay the corrupt Sherriff (John Last) and the Senator (Michael J Hayes), upsets Sharon. Their love song "Old Devil Moon" is pretty and Christina's voice is as clear as a bell. This is a song Frank Sinatra famously recorded.

The storyline may be a bit simplistic but Yip Harburg's lyrics are full of clever social commentary. "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" makes salient points about class and wealth and opportunity. "When a rich man doesn't want to work/He's a bon vivant, yes he's a bon vivant/But when a poor man doesn't want to work/He's a loafer, he's a lounger/He's a lazy good for nothing/He's a jerk." I liked the arrival of the Shears and Robust catalogues which has the whole community in a shopping frenzy, a satirical look at consumerism, especially satirical as we can see that apart from the period covers every inside page is in their imagination.

The problematic turning of the Senator into a black man, written with 66 year old ideas of racial attitude and acceptability, and liable to misinterpretation, doesn't happen in this production. Instead Senator Rawkins disappears to become a white immigrant scratching a living and through that experience discovers empathy with the farming community and sings "The Begat" with the gospelers.

The set is minimal but in period style, wooden tobacco crates piled high, and I liked the costumes, men in dungarees and women in cotton frocks.

James Horne is a confident Finian, quirky and inventive who returns to the fabled Glocca Morra, celebrated in the twice repeated song. Raymond Walsh who plays Og the leprechaun, he with the rising trousers as he takes on human dimensions, has a strong singing voice in "Fiddle Faddle" and when he falls for Woody's mute but dancing sister Susan (Laura Bella Griffin) sings another love song "When I'm Not Near The Girl I Love". Character actor Celia Byrne (known for her cabaret role as Edith Piff Paff), here as Miss Celia, brings humour and enthusiastic joining in with the young things' choreography. She is marvellous and always made me smile.

For Elyse Sommer's review of the 2009 production on Broadway with plot summary go here. For my money, this boutique production is much more enjoyable than the West End's Irish offering of Once.

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Finian's Rainbow
Music by Burton Lane
Book by EY Harburg and Fred Saidy
Lyrics by EY Harburg
Adaptation: Charlotte Moore
Directed by Phil Willmott

Starring: James Horne, Christina Bennington, Raymond Walsh, Anne Odeke, Joseph Peters, Laura Bella Griffin
With: Michael Moulton, Marcia Lorenzo Cerise Reid, Michael J Hayes, John Last, David Malcolm, Chris Kayson, Joshua Coley, Carl Bradley, Celia Byrne, Laura Webb, Shani Cantor, Danielle Acors, Lucy Murdoch, Rebecca Crawley, Abigail Carter Simpson and Stacey Victoria Bland
Set Construction: Tony Burbidge
Choreography by Thomas Michael Voss
Costume Design: Kirk Jameson
Lighting: Tom Boucher
Musical Direction: Richard Baker
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking to 15th March 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th February 2014 performance at The Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 0PX (Tube: Southwark)

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • This Time of the Year - Ensemble
  • How Are Things in Glocca Morra? - Sharon McLonergan
  • Look to the Rainbow - Sharon McLonergan and Ensemble
  • Old Devil Moon - Sharon McLonergan and Woody Mahoney
  • How Are Things in Glocca Morra? (Reprise) - Sharon McLonergan
  • Something Sort of Grandish - Susan Mahoney and Og
  • If This Isn't Love - Sharon McLonergan, Woody Mahoney and Ensemble
  • Something Sort of Grandish (Reprise) - Og
  • Necessity - The Rawkins' Maid and Gospelers
  • That Great 'Come-and-Get-It' Day - Sharon McLonergan, Woody Mahoney and Ensemble
Act Two
  • When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich - Sharon McLonergan and Ensemble
  • Old Devil Moon (Reprise) - Sharon McLonergan and Woody Mahoney
  • Fiddle Faddle - Og
  • The Begat - Senator Billboard Rawkins and Gospelers
  • Look to the Rainbow (Reprise) - Sharon McLonergan, Woody Mahoney and Ensemble
  • When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love - Og and Susan Mahoney
  • If This Isn't Love (Reprise) - Ensemble
  • Finale - Company
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