“Finian’s Rainbow,” a Tony Award winner from 1947, may be more than 60 years old, but this new version by Music Theatre of Wichita under direction of Wayne Bryan resurrects a smart, long-neglected gem.
The show is a fanciful, magical romance about an Irishman making off with a leprechaun’s gold and coming to America with his daughter to make a new life. It has an undercurrent of political satire about racial discrimination as they settle in the fictional state of Missitucky.
What’s surprising is how fresh and current — and scathingly pointed — it seems. Writers tried to make bigotry so monstrously buffoonish that audiences would laugh it off the stage and, hopefully, out of post-World War II America — long before Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s civil rights movement.
And director Bryan has capitalized on that attitude by allowing outrageous exaggeration to make bigots — mostly a curmudgeonly white senator and his suck-up lackeys — look ridiculous and pathetic.
Bryan orchestrates the largest laugh when a white man tries to teach a new black butler how to be appropriately subservient, and how the butler turns that lesson on its ear. Kim Huber as feisty Irish immigrant Sharon and Edward Watts as Southern troubadour Woody (inspired by Woody Guthrie) are the couple at the core who provide the requisite romance.
Huber, an MTW alumnus who has been on Broadway as Belle in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” and in the original “Sunset Boulevard,” has a clear, powerful soprano that bewitches and transports an audience for lilting and evocative tunes like “Look to the Rainbow.”
Watts, taking a break from his lead role in “The Fantasticks” in New York to return to MTW, was seen as the lead of season opener “The Music Man.” His warm, seductive baritone blends beautifully with Huber for love ballads like “Old Devil Moon.” One thing about the music of this Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg show: there’s a familiar toe-tapping standard around every corner. Harburg, best known to Kansans for all the “Wizard of Oz” songs, notably “Over the Rainbow,” provides delightful word play and unusual rhymes for a punch of fun.
Veteran Wichita actors John Boldenow as Sharon’s scampish father, Finian, and Timothy W. Robu as the bigoted Sen. Rawkins provide inspired comic moments as they bustle around the stage. The former offers a sort of charming braggadocio reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion, and the latter sputtering with hilarious, incoherent rage at everything that moves.
Highlights also come from L.A.-based Reggie Burrell, who displays a booming baritone as part of a gospel quartet as the racially transformed bigot, and Molly Rushing as Susan the Silent, a girl who “speaks” only through graceful dance.
But stealing the show is Stanley Bahorek, another MTW alumnus returning as guest star, as Og the perpetually impish leprechaun. He is frantic to recover his stolen gold before he turns mortal and is permanently stuck with icky human emotions — like love. Bahorek, who will remind you of comic Rob Snyder but with a solid Broadway voice suitable for “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near),” is a hoot as he dashes about, appearing to grow taller and out of his leprechaun clothes. The set by Bruce Brockman with lighting by David Neville provides a particularly lovely bucolic setting, as though viewed through an oval time portal where the sky changes colors to match the moods and the stars seem to go on forever.
If You Go:
What: Second show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall Additional performances: 8 p.m. 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.
At Kansas.com: Visit this story at Kansas.com for additional photos and coverage of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
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