Music Theatre's Wayne Bryan has always loved the music of "Finian's Rainbow," the 1947 Tony-winning musical that spawned such standards as "Old Devil Moon," "If This Isn't Love," "Look to the Rainbow" and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love."
But Bryan, producing artistic director of Wichita's premiere theater troupe now in his 24th year here, has always worried that the show itself had become dated and potentially offensive. It involves a bigoted white character who goes blackface when he is magically transformed into a black man to experience discrimination first-hand.
"As our cultural awareness evolved from post-World War II through the 1960s, the whole idea of blackface became a problem," Bryan says. "'Finian's Rainbow' and 'Brigadoon' with their similar Gaelic bravado opened the same year on Broadway and even shared the choreography Tony Award. But as the years passed, 'Brigadoon' was done more and more and 'Finian's Rainbow' was done less and less. I have to believe that was the reason, even though it was sharp political satire."
After languishing in neglect for several decades, "Finian's Rainbow" was revived on Broadway in 2009 with a twist that suddenly changed everything, says Bryan, who finally decided to stage it — and personally direct it — at MTW for the first time for this 40th anniversary season.
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"When the bigoted Southern senator is transformed into a black man, the character is now played by a real black actor. It doesn't just make the show palatable, it makes it invigorating."
Bryan says the change also allowed him to cast a performer with real gospel/blues/soul chops to make the most of the transformed character, who is taken under the wing of a black gospel group to help him reach enlightenment.
Making his MTW debut in the role is Los Angeles-based Reggie Burrell, who performed backup for Gladys Knight for a decade as well as singing on studio albums behind Madonna, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Elton John.
"I consider myself an actor/singer now. I started in theater, then went through my studio work in the '80s, my decade with Gladys Knight in the '90s, and back to theater in the 2000s," says Burrell, who has played Horse in "The Full Monty." "For me, bringing the senator to life will be a really intense experience because it makes such a powerful statement."
Playing the senator in his original white form is longtime Wichita favorite Timothy W. Robu, just seen as the blustering Mayor Shinn in the season opener, "The Music Man."
The whimsical, romantic main story of "Finian's Rainbow" revolves around an Irish everyman named Finian McLongergan who stumbles across a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow and emigrates to the American South — the fanciful "Missitucky" — with his daughter, Sharon, to make a better life.
He is intent on burying the gold near Fort Knox because he believes that will cause it to grow. But Finian is pursued by an irate leprechaun, who is desperate to retrieve his gold. The longer he is apart from his treasure, the more human the poor leprechaun becomes.
Playing Finian is Wichita veteran John Boldenow, active in virtually every local theater troupe for 30 years and best known for more than 1,000 local performances as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."
"Finian is a man who is blessed — and cursed — with wanderlust. He is always trying to see what's over the next hill. He is always ready for the next adventure, and his daughter comes along as sort of a reluctant participant," says Boldenow, who has been inducted into the local acting Teall Hall of Fame with more than a dozen individual awards. "It's a love story on different levels. He loves his daughter but knows when it's time to give her to the man she loves."
Playing loving but exasperated daughter Sharon is Kim Huber, a Los Angeles-based actress who began in the MTW ensemble and went on to star as Belle in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway as well as appear in the original "Sunset Boulevard" with Glenn Close.
"Sharon is her own person. She speaks her mind. She is the one who wishes that the bigoted senator learn what discrimination feels like — and gets her wish," says Huber, seen here previously as a guest star in "My Fair Lady," "White Christmas" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
"With Woody, it's love at first sight with some great music. Who wouldn't fall in love to 'Old Devil Moon'? But it's not a coy romance. It's a given that Sharon and Woody will get together. The question is how they will make the world better together."
Playing Woody, whose character was inspired by folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, is New York-based Edward Watts, just seen as Harold Hill in "The Music Man." Since he's playing a Southerner with a drawl, he jokes that he will get to speak a lot slower for this show.
"I didn't know until just recently that Woody is a tribute to Woody Guthrie," says Watts, who was prepared to take over the role from Cheyenne Jackson in the recent Broadway revival. But the show closed only days before he was to begin.
"But I can personally connect with Guthrie's ideas," he said. "I feel his outrage over discrimination."
Promising to be the wackiest person on stage is New York-based Stanley Bahorek, another alumnus of MTW's summer ensemble, as the increasingly desperate leprechaun, Og — a role that won David Wayne the first featured actor Tony Award in history.
"It's sort of a case where anything goes because he is part of the fairy folk," jokes Bahorek, who will remind you a bit of Rob Snyder. Director Bryan says he cast Bahorek as the perfect leprechaun not only because of his comic and physical inventiveness, but also because he knows how not to go too far.
"We don't want Og to be ordinary in any way. He's wacky, but he's still engaging because he's turning more and more human when he can't find his gold. He's beginning to experience human emotions for the first time, which he can't understand — particularly love. And he's finding that isn't so bad."
If You Go: 'Finian's Rainbow'
What: Second show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $57-$22 evenings, $49-$20 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.musictheatreofwichita.org.