Monday, 23 November 2009

1940s Musicals in the NYC area

When I heard that FINIAN'S RAINBOW was going to be revived on Broadway, I was very skeptical. The show has a lovely score, but the book is a bit twee (a cutesy leprechaun and a whimsical story) and potentially racist. Without changing the book -- only trimming it down -- and taking the story and characters seriously, this production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is charming and suprisingly relevant. Yip Harburg, hwo wrote the book and lyrics, wanted to use a popular form to express serious ideas without being preachy and he succeeded. FINIAN'S RAINBOWS satire of Southern racism may be a bit dates, but its prescient presentation of a debtor society in which buying on credit is supposed to bring happiness seemed extremely timely. The simple unit set is a bit tacky, but Carlyle has wisely moved the action down to the footlights so that the talented, charming cast really plays to the audience. All the leads are superb. Christopher Fitzgerald manages to make the leprechaun funny, Jim Norton avoids the usual Irish stereotpyes as Finian and Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin look and sound great.
I have seen three attempts at reviving ON THE TOWN. The one in the early 70s with Bernadette Peters Failed because the choreography (Ron Field) was lame and the show had no sense of style. One in the 90s failed for the same reason. The English National Opera did a lovely production a few years ago. The sets were decidedly low budget but the staging and choreography (Stephen Mears) were fine and the cast was strong -- heavier on good singers than dancers, but it worked. Now the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, once famed for fine revivals of classic musicals but recently experienced a creative and audience slump, has mounted a really fine revival of the show. Perhaps I have seen ON THE TOWN once or twice too often, but I find the comic scenes that fill the 90 minute Act I repetitive and tiresome. The Paper Mill folks could have followed the example of the Encores series and trimmed to book down to essentials. Given that this production was so much a dance show, the static book scenes seemed all the more dated. But Leonard Bernstein wrote such a magnificent score for ON THE TOWN that the show should be revived.
There is more dancing in ON THE TOWN than in WEST SIDE STORY. This is the challenge for choreographers -- how to keep inventive when there is an hour of choreography to create. Patti Colombo met that challenge for the most part, and her dancers were terrific. In this production the three sailors whose story the show tells were all superb dancers as well as singers and actors. Tyler Hanes who played Gabey was a real dancer (Gabey is usually cast as a singer who has minimal dancing to do) who led most of the mini ballets that fill the show.
Lovely sets, gorgeous costumes, a good orchestra (strings replaced by synthesizers) and a great, energetic cast made this a delight.
FINIAN'S RAINBOW. Music by Burton Lane, book and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Saint James Theatre. November 19, 2009.
ON THE TOWN. Music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Bill Berry, choreographed by Patti Colombo. Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ. November 20, 2009.

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