Finian's Rainbow brings musical magic to Woodminster!

Finian McLonegan (Gene Brundage) points toward their journey's end, Rainbow Valley, to his daughter, Susan (Juliet Heller). Photos by Kathy Kahn & Stephen Woo

The Woodminster Summer Musicals program has just resurrected “Finian’s Rainbow”, a seldom done vintage gem of whimsical musical theater. The musical was originally produced in 1947 on Broadway, and remounted three times for Broadway revivals in 1955, 1960 and again in 1967. Jack Warner had purchased the movie rights to the musical 20 years earlier, put it on a back burner and failed to do anything with it until he saw Petula Clark perform on her opening night at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. Suddenly, he felt he had found the perfect Finian’s daughter. Then, when he was able to sign Fred Astaire as Finian, Finian’s Rainbow was in the process of being revived again in 1968, this time as a Warner Brother’s film. The big question mark for everyone was money, as Warner Brothers had huge cost overruns with “Camelot”, which had not been released yet. Warner took another risk, this time in hiring a virtual unknown “Hippie” director from the Bay Area, Francis Ford Coppola. To keep costs down and to re-create the scene where the lead characters arrive in “Rainbow Valley”, the “realism driven” Coppola opted for a portion of the film to be shot “off lot”, in a natural setting in the Napa Valley, near Coppola’s home. Coppola even demanded that a portion of the film was to be shot with a very nervous Fred Astaire dancing in a field, a field filled with cow dung and rabbit holes!

In the Woodminster musical production, the fairy tale story concept revolves around Irish immigrant Finian McLonergan (Gene Brundage) and his lovely daughter, Sharon (Juliet Heller) who have moved from their home in Glocca Morra, Ireland to resettle in the southern state of Missituckey, near the famous American Gold depository of Fort Knox. It seems that Finian, while he was still residing in Ireland, had had the good fortune to discover a real pot of gold, had stolen it from the Leprechauns, and fled to America with the mistaken belief that gold buried near where the American government keeps its gold, will rapidly multiply! He really doesn’t consider the taking of the gold as thievery, he regards the process as merely borrowing it, intending to return it to his Irish benefactors (the leprechauns) with interest as soon as he can. When he arrives in Rainbow Valley, a corrupt politician, Senator Rawkins (Greg Carlson) and his aid, Buzz Collins (Brian Dauglash), are buying up huge strips of land at public tax auction. Landowner Woody Mahoney (Tom Reardon) has gotten behind in paying his land taxes while in the US Navy. As the auction is about to begin, he returns home with his mustering out pay, thinking he has enough to save his land from the greedy land grabbers, only to discover at the last moment that the government has attached certain costs and surcharges on top of his taxes. Unable to pay the enhanced tax assessment, he is about to lose his land to the sheriff’s auction gavel when an unlikely hero emerges from the gathering crowd, Finian and his daughter. Finian makes a quick proposal to help Mahoney save his land by loaning him the extra money, in exchange for a bit of the property for himself. After all, he needs a secure place to bury his secret pot of gold, a piece of land he actually owns!

Of course, a musical would not be a musical without romance and of course, Finan’s daughter, Sharon, and landowner Woody Mahoney dutifully fall in love for us. Since this is a fairy tale, of sorts, the Mc Lonergans have been followed from Ireland by an Irish leprechaun by the name of Og (Tyler Kent). The leprechaun is bent on returning the stolen gold to his homeland. To hear him tell it, the loss of the magical gold and its pot, has turned the fortunes of Ireland to dire misfortune, and Og is in a big hurry to find where Finian has hidden the gold. In addition, every day that Og is away from his magical homeland, he is gradually turning mortal, which is not exactly what he wants to be. That’s right, what would a fairy tale be without a bit of magic, and like the magic lanterns of old, there are three wishes attached to this pot of gold. Abused or overused, the pot of gold becomes worthless and loses its magical power.

On the surface you might think this is a dated story, as it dwells heavily on the social issues of the black community in the south, especially in the early 60’s. Many of those issues are still just below the surface of social equity today. It has not been so long ago that the memories of blacks being forced to eat, sleep and live segregated lives, are still fresh in our minds. The sharecroppers on Mahoney’s tobacco growing farmland make up the predominant local citizenry. They add southern rhythm and blues and a gospel musical tapestry to the Irish musical backdrop.

Songs with rich eloquent lyrics and beautiful melodies come flooding back now in my memory as I mentally relive the musical aspects of the show as I write this article. Songs such as “How are Things in Glocca Morra?”, the “Old Devil Moon” in your eyes, “If This Isn’t Love” and the absolutely wonderful quartet rendition of “The Begat” song, sung by the Gospeleers, prove a delightful mix of musical textures. It is such a delight to hear lyrics that are really clever, fun and even beautiful when mixed with such lovely music. The orchestra (yes, a full orchestra, an outstanding orchestra) is directed by Richard Vetterli, one of my favorite directors. In addition, a bit of country mood setting musical accompaniment is provided by the sultry and rhythmic harmonica sounds of soloist Steve Webster.

The voices are really outstanding from not only the leads, but even the ensemble members. Michelle Ianiro delivers a delightful and important contribution to a number called “Necessity”, a song number that was left out of the movie version because the show was running too long. This is a song about the evil that happens when the “idle poor become the idle rich”. Michelle is terrific and the song is richly rewarding as well.

The lead actors are superb, with Gene Brundage, practically stealing the spotlight with his excellent portrayal of the old Irish gentleman, Finian. Then, add to this, the incredible and beautiful voice of Juliet Heller (Sharon McLonergan) as she fills the air above the amphitheater with exquisite, rich and unrivalled vocal beauty. Michael LeRoy Brown, who plays the white Senator after he magically is converted into a black person, joins with the Gospeleers to deliver some truly exciting “down home Sunday go to meetin’ music”. Greg Carlson is very good as the insensitive, big mouthed and bigoted white southern Senator. Tom Reardon does a great job as Woody Mahoney and the real plus for the evening was the superbly talented Tyler Kent, who plays the Leprechaun at large. There is a wee bit of musical magic in his voice, his most excellent acting skills, playfulness and comic touch.

All together, this is a delightful musical production in a beautiful outdoor theater facility. I highly recommend the drive down Highway 13 to Joaquin Miller Park, above the Mormon Temple, at 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, in the Oakland Hills to take in “Finian’s Rainbow”, Theatre under the stars can be a bit chilly, even this late in September, so dress in layers and very important, bring a tush and/or back cushion if you do not have ample cushioning of your own as the old style seating is not very comfortable. This is a great place to come early, bring a picnic basket and eat dinner in the park before the theatre performs in the evening. You can also purchase food in theater compound and I highly recommend the hotdog vender (especially separate from the refreshment stand) whose polish dogs are outstanding! All shows begin at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday and closing this coming Sunday (September12th ). Ticket prices range between $26 and $42 each, with a $2 discount for children and seniors. Call (510) 531-9597 or go online to or contact for additional information or ordering tickets.