When the Spinning Tree Theatre approached Phil Fiorini about playing the title Irishman in “Finian’s Rainbow,” no one knew how perfect the fit would be.
You see, as everyone would come to learn, “Finian’s Rainbow” was the first musical theater Fiorini had ever seen. The 1968 film version starring Fred Astaire was the first drive-in movie he’d seen. Suffice to say, he was excited to be involved.
“In my career, I’ve never really gotten to do a lot of these classic musicals,” Fiorini said. “I couldn’t say no, and it’s been a very magical experience.”
Magical is certainly the right word for “Finian’s Rainbow,” whose plot revolves around a leprechaun, his pot of gold and the father and daughter who get between them. Fiorini plays Finian, the Irish immigrant who comes to America with his daughter, Sharon (played by Elise Poehling). Unbeknownst to Sharon, Finian has stolen a pot of gold from a leprechaun, intending to bury it and become rich like the American millionaires. But, when the leprechaun reappears, trickery and magic ensue.
Directors/choreographers Michael and Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst didn’t always think “Finian’s Rainbow” would be perfect for Spinning Tree, which kicks off its new season with the show, opening Friday at Just Off Broadway Theatre. However, a pared-down, two-piano version presented off-Broadway last year by the Irish Repertory Theatre of New York piqued Michael’s interest.
“When we heard the Irish Rep was doing a two-piano version of ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ I flew out there just to see that show because it reminded us of what Spinning Tree does,” Michael said. “So, they took a cast of maybe 40 back in the day and brought it down to 14 people.”
“We were sort of just trolling the licensing sites and said oh my God, there’s a two-piano version available of this show and it’s for 14 people,’” Andrew added. “It’s already been given the Spinning Tree treatment.”
Conveniently, the show meets the company’s aim of presenting one classic musical from the mid-20th century each season. And, like many other classic musicals, “Finian’s Rainbow” comes with complex political and societal issues that hold up 70 years after it premiered in 1947.
Finian and Sharon take up residence in a Jim-Crow-era fictional “Missitucky” and fall in with a band of tobacco sharecroppers, black and white. Tensions arise over class and racial inequalities as the sheriff and a senator take advantage of the farmers.
“The angst that I have personally, as in what’s going on politically, reminds me of how we all have to come together. It’s a microcosm of what our world is,” Fiorini said. “But what lifts us up is beauty and hope and mysticism and magic. That’s what I love about this show.”
But, like any musical from the Golden Age of Broadway, “Finian’s Rainbow” has plenty of classic song and dance numbers to entertain. Many of the show’s standouts, like “Look to the Rainbow” and “Old Devil Moon,” became jazz standards. It’s definitely a “hummable” show, said Michael.
And don’t let the smaller cast size mislead you; there are plenty of large dance numbers, accompanied by tunes in styles from gospel to jazz to Broadway. One of the characters is even mute — communicating only through dance — and, like all the other characters, she’s just as important as the leads, Andrew said.
“With 14 people, there’s no chorus, per se — so everyone has a name and everyone is doing specific work all the time. There are no extras,” he said. “We love that; everyone’s working at the tip-top level.”
“Finian’s Rainbow” runs Sept. 1-17 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive. See spinningtreetheatre.com or call 816-235-6222.
The Unicorn Theatre presents “Men on Boats,” Sept. 6 through Oct. 1. The true story of an 1869 expedition down the Colorado River gets a twist with an all-female cast, modern language and hearty satire. See unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.