Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Finian's Rainbow" at the Ivoryton Playhouse

Go see a play or musical at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

What follows is a review of their recent production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow”, but the upshot is: go to the Ivoryton Playhouse. You will be delighted. You will likely even be amazed.

To be sure, New England summer theatre has its own particular charm, as I’ve stated often enough, I suppose, in this blog. Upon entering the Ivoryton Playhouse with its worn wooden floors, its simple seating chairs, and the rustic quality that is genuine, borne of decades, and not manufactured to be retro and decorative, one might lower one’s expectations for a performance that is, like the theater, serviceable, and good enough.

On the contrary. The show was as good as any I’ve ever seen in any theater, including Broadway, and better than most of them. It may be that the simple and whimsical nature of this show, “Finian’s Rainbow”, about a rascally Irish immigrant and his daughter, and a buffoonish leprechaun, and a flock of good-hearted villagers seeking redress from the local villain lends itself beautifully to this small-town theater.

Certainly, the minimalist and somewhat cartoonish set designed by Tony Andrea implies that we are required from the outset to suspend disbelief. However, the creative scrim effect and the lighting brings a poignant “reality” to the fairy tale, the way an impressionistic painting makes us recognize what we already know and wonder about what we had missed.

Another terrific illusion is created by the effect of the dual pianos in the pit, which give a richness that makes a larger combo or orchestra surprisingly unnecessary. The fabulous voices fill in the rest.

R. Bruce Connelly (whom your children will probably not recognize out of his costume as Barkley the dog on Sesame Street), is delightful as the rogue Finian, who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold to put into action his own unique theory of economics.

Kathleen Mulready plays his feisty daughter, Sharon. She has a beautiful singing voice, with comedic timing that makes her at times appear as roguish as her troublesome father. She is well-matched with John Rochette, who plays Woody, the villager’s hero and best hope for defeating their oppressors. With his masterful baritone and striking good looks, Rochette’s scenes with Ms. Mulready, particularly during the number “Old Devil Moon” are sensual and moving.

Michael Nathanson is hysterical as Og the leprechaun, and Patryce Williams as one of the townsfolk steals the show in her featured number “Necessity.” Both these actors give strong, likable performances that fairly leap off the stage. The rest of the leaping is left to dancer Tessa Grunwald as Susan the Silent, who expresses herself wistfully in ballet.

Larry Lewis likewise plays a memorable Senator Billboard Rawkins, the villain of the piece who, after a little magic, has a change of heart. One note about Jamison Daniels, who plays the Sheriff when he’s not doubling as one of the townspeople: that high-pitched whine he uses as the sheriff that sounds like a teenaged boy’s voice changing is a hoot.

Costumes by Pam Puente, are evocative of the lazy summertime small town South, though Sharon’s dress stands out from the garden of small print dresses and aprons on the other ladies by its colorful stripes suggesting a rainbow.

The entire cast, including a good-sized ensemble, sings together with terrifically tight harmony and vocal precision. And the voices are beautiful. Director Julia Kiley and musical director John S. DeNicola are to be commended, as well as choreographer Schuyler Beeman for the cohesion in this production. It is fine-tuned and glorious to behold.

This is why I say this production is as good or better than others I’ve seen. There is always something overdone or underdone, even if in a small way, that happens in many theatre productions. Not this time. There’s nothing slipshod, uneven or out of place about this show.

There is a fa├žade of simplicity, even nostalgia that remains and beguiles. Perhaps it is because there is not a lot of technical trickery, bells and whistles or eye candy to distract, thereby letting the pure and undiluted talent stand on its own merit. This is after all, summer theatre in a small town.

Perhaps it is because this show innocently harkens back to a time when tobacco was a time-honored crop and the dangers of its use in smoking were if not unknown, were at least not discussed. This production slings a modern-day joke into the dialogue, and thereby a connection to modern sensibilities, by having the townsfolk hack in a hearty community cough when discussing their treasured tobacco crop, on which they pin their hopes for economic independence.

Perhaps it is because this show reflects a time when we innocently thought racism could be vanquished merely by standing up to it. There were also chuckles from the audience when the bigoted Senator moans, “Ever since my family came to this country, we’ve had trouble with immigrants.”

In today’s political climate when racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry can so strongly surface over an argument, particularity when that bigotry is being manipulated and exploited, we might wonder if an innocent show like “Finian’s Rainbow” is out of date.

Somehow, here at the Ivoryton Playhouse, it is not out of date. It is surprisingly relevant and provides a bond not only to our cultural past, but our theatrical heritage. A painted wooden stage. A little puff of smoke from dry ice. Lights up. Lights down.

On the walls, a gallery of 8 x 10 photographs of some of the famous actors who played here. There are a number of them; after all, plays were first produced here in 1930 (the building dates back to 1911). Some of these actors were already famous when they played here, summers ago. Some were newcomers, like young Katharine Hepburn, who appeared in several shows in the summer of 1931.

Go see a play or musical at the Ivoryton Playhouse. It’s not just theatre in the summer anymore, but a produces a year-round schedule of professional theatre. For more on the rest of the 2010 schedule, have a look at this website. “Finian’s Rainbow” runs until this Sunday, September 5th.

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