Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about FINIAN’S RAINBOW, RAGTIME, FELA! and IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY.

The current production of Finian’s Rainbow, at the St. James Theatre, started life in last season’s Encores series at City Center. The Encores productions are very bare-bones and there the emphasis is always on the score. This is why the reviews for Encores’ production were so outstanding. This is indeed, one heckuva score, with one wonderful song after another by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics). On Broadway, though, the book comes more into focus. Said book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is a fairy tale with an edge. That edge deals with the ever-thorny American problem of racial prejudice. In 1947, the treatment of this issue in the show must have seemed very cutting-edge. In 2009, it just seems dated and silly. In fact, just about everything in this book tries to be cute and whimsical but winds about just being contrived and inane.

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The story concerns a small town in the rural South, in a state called “Missitucky.” Everyone is under the thumb of a venal senator – the black sharecroppers most of all. Well, an Irishman arrives with his daughter. He’s the eponymous Finian, and he has stolen the leprechauns’ pot of gold, which he plans to bury in the ground. Since we are near Fort Knox, Finian reasons that the gold will grow and make him rich. I mean, really… A leprechaun named Og comes after the gold. Since its removal from Ireland, he is becoming more and more mortal as, I guess, are all the little fellas back home. It’s a crisis! Meanwhile, the evil senator is scheming to get his hands on all the local land. Finian’s daughter makes a wish – near the pot o’ gold, that the senator were black and WHOMP! He’s turned into a black guy. Well, the locals are going to burn Finian’s daughter as a witch (in 1940s America???) – but the day winds up being saved. They don’t burn her, and she gets to marry a handsome local yokel.

Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle has staged this in a fashion absolutely true to the way it must have been staged in its original incarnation, except for his clever choice to hire a black actor (here, the always-excellent Chuck Cooper) to portray the transmogrified senator, instead of having the senator quickly blacked-up as it’s usually done. You feel as if you have time-travelled back to the Broadway of 1947, right down to the cheesy set. I think this was the right choice, because I can’t think of any other way to stage this cornball show.

All that said, the performers are quite delightful. Jim Norton makes a sly, foxy grandpa of a Finian, and Kate Baldwin is charming as his daughter, Sharon. My only quibble here is that Norton looks old enough to be Sharon’s grandfather. Ah, well – this is a typical though somewhat annoying casting convention. Cheyenne Jackson is a sweet-singing, charming hunk as local yokel Woody, and Christopher Fitzgerald is delightfully goofy as Og.

I have to say that the elderly couple seated in front of me loved this show. They had recently seen In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play and hated it, so this was more their cup of Irish coffee.

It has been reported that the new production of Ragtime, at the Neil Simon Theatre, is dying the death and will probably close in January. This is a terrible shame, because the show, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, is a masterpiece of the American musical theatre; and this production, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrim Dodge, is a beautiful rendering of this story, based on E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, about America in the early 20th Century. It has a great score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and a great book by Terrance McNally. It is astounding to me that the show hasn’t caught on.

All the performers are superb, with particular kudos to Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. I also enjoyed Christiane Noll as Mother, Bobby Steggert as Mother’s Younger Brother, and Robert Petkoff as Tateh.

So, you don’t have much longer to see this wonderful production of this wonderful show. Alas …

I also enjoyed Fela!, which has transferred from Off Broadway to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. This is the story of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, originator of a style of music called “Afro Beat.” We are in a club in Lagos called The Shrine, which Fela built and where he performs regularly, at the last performance there before it closes. Fela announces from the start that he is leaving Nigeria, as the political situation there is hopeless. He then relates the story of his life – how he developed his musical style, how he became radicalized in America, and how he tried to change things in Nigeria, inspired by his mother, a feminist and political activist there. This is in fact an inspiring show, though way too much is narrated rather than dramatized, and Fela, a complex individual, is here canonized as a modern saint –move over, Mother Theresa –where a warts-and-all portrait would have been far more interesting.

There is also far too much wheel-spinning for my taste. A 2.5-hour evening could easily have been cut by 30 minutes. But quibbles aside, Bill T. Jones’ choreography is incredible, and Sahr Ngaujah’s performance in the title role is astounding. Also terrific is Broadway veteran Lillias White as Fela’s martyred mother. The show makes use of Fela’s music, so it is, in effect, an example of that much-maligned genre, the so-called “Jukebox Musical.” Nobody seems to have noted this. I wonder why? The music is infectious, but rather repetitive; but it is wonderfully played by an onstage band, joined often by Mr. Ngaujah on saxophone and trumpet.

Overall, I would say that Fela is definitely worth a go; but if you can only go to one, I’d choose Ragtime.

Finally, I want to trumpet Sarah Ruhl’s brilliant IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY, produced by Lincoln Center Theatre at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. In my opinion this is the best new play of the season so far – and to my mind this has been a pretty impressive season for plays, if you count Beyond Broadway, as I do.

All of Ms. Ruhl’s other plays I have read or seen are theatrically-inventive examples of that genre so ubiquitous in the not-for-profit theatre – Anything But Realism. This new one, though, is surprisingly realistic in style. It concerns a doctor in the late 19th Century who has developed a method for treating women with “hysteria” – a general catch-all for female crazy behavior – using a miracle of modern technology, an electric device which stimulates his patients “down there.” After just a few minutes of his treatment, during which he induces in them a “paroxysm,” they leave with a smile on their face, on the road to recovery. The play works on one level as a satire of the way sex was viewed in the Victorian Age, but it is also an impassioned plea for what eventually became known as “Women’s Liberation.”

Les Waters’ production is just beautiful, and his cast is superb. Michael Cerveris is wonderful as the doctor, playing him as a sincere, earnest man who truly believes he is in the vanguard of medical science, and Laura Benanti is charming as his rather ditzy, repressed wife. In fact, all the cast is terrific. I particularly enjoyed Chandler Williams, as a male patient whom the doctor diagnoses as suffering from “male hysteria” – which is extremely rare, he tells him. His treatment for this condition is hilarious. Maria Dizzia is excellent, too, as a patient whom we watch being treated. Her paroxysms are as convincing as was Meg Ryan’s in “When Harry Met Sally,” if you know what I mean. Lord, I love a Moaner! In my opinion, they can’t be portrayed too often.

My guess is that Lincoln Center will run this play as long as there’s an audience. The question is, are most Broadway theatre-goers as prudish and conservative at that couple I met at Finian’s Rainbow, or are they up for a brilliantly staged and acted play which seeks to challenge its audience rather than soothe it?

FINIAN’S RAINBOW. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
RAGTIME. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com 2877-250-2929
FELA! Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com 212-2390-6200.
IN THE NEXT ROOM; or, THE VIBRATOR PLAY. Lyceum
Theatre, 140 W. 45th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com. 212-2390-6200.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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