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Despite Clouds, 'Rainbow' Emerges

Theater: After losing three of four key cast members, and numerous other changes, the show goes on tonight.

September 24, 1997|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cast of "Finian's Rainbow" was supposed to include Andrea Marcovicci, Joel Grey, Keith Carradine and Ned Beatty. As of last Saturday, it still included Marcovicci and Beatty (Grey and Carradine dropped out because of other professional offers). Then, over the weekend, Beatty abruptly left the production, citing "creative differences"--and by Monday, the only original cast member left was Marcovicci, who is struggling to shake off the bad cold she just caught from her 2-year-old daughter.

And the curtain goes up tonight.

"Finian's Rainbow," at UCLA's Freud Playhouse in Macgowan Hall through Sunday, is part of the Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert series, now in its first season. Similar to New York's highly successful Encores! series, which brings together big-name entertainers for concert stagings of infrequently performed classic musicals, actors will be juggling their scripts along with their props onstage.

Last-minute cast changes, script changes, colds, bad weather or natural disasters do not appear to faze Marcovicci, nor the show's more-recently added cast members--Rex Smith, Malcolm Gets and William Biff McGuire, Beatty's 11th-hour replacement--nor even the directors and producers of "Finian's Rainbow," a musical celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

And even if they do, there's no time to worry about it; this presentation, a "semi-staged" effort that falls somewhere between a reading and a full-blown production, had only a grand total of eight days to rehearse, compared with a normal schedule of three months or more. Well, 8 1/2 days, actually; a few cast members showed up on Sunday, their one official day off in a grueling schedule, to begin work with McGuire, who was in the 1960 Broadway revival of "Finian's Rainbow," as Woody, the romantic lead now played by Smith.

There are no understudies. They cost too much.

"I'd lose my courage if we weren't doing this so fast," said Marcovicci, best known for her work as a cabaret singer, looking radiantly happy despite her cold and that night's dinner, a couple of tired-looking tuna sandwiches from a campus vending machine.

"I call it 'Let's Put It On in Your Daddy's Barn Productions,' because it has that feeling of enthusiasm--let's get together and put on a show," she says. "The day just flies by, instead of the way it's been for me in movies and television, where it's 90% waiting, and drinking coffee and getting insane. This is exhilarating!"

The first Reprise! production was last May's "Promises, Promises," starring Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld"), whose credits also include the 1989 best actor Tony Award for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." "Promises" sold out its one-week run and was brought back for 14 more performances in August. The "Finian" performances are also heavily pre-sold.

The idea is to allow prominent local actors, too locked in by TV and movie shooting schedules to commit to a run of a theater show, the chance to do a musical in just two weeks. It also allows audiences the opportunity to see performers they may know only from film and TV strut their stuff onstage. Gets, for example, has a long theatrical history in New York but is best known here as the comically morose Richard on the NBC series "Caroline in the City."

And, finally, in this era of $10-million Broadway musicals, it allows musical revivals to get up on their feet for a reasonable price; in this case, about $185,000 for the run. The creative forces behind this production say they are not here to make money but to have fun.

"Finian" director Will Mackenzie, choreographer Janet Watson and musical director Peter Matz have been preparing since July for their two-week marathon, and Marcovicci was cast then as well. Gets and Smith were cast several weeks ago, and chorus members were selected at auditions just after Labor Day.

Mackenzie, taking a one-month hiatus from directing television, says the "Finian" pace reminds him of the old days in summer stock, when companies often did 10 shows in as many weeks. Here, he says, one of his biggest challenges was trying to come up with ways of updating the book, which deals with race relations from a 1947 perspective. The original show, for example, calls for a white actor to play a portion of his role in blackface. Instead, Mackenzie cast a white actor and a black actor.

"It's costing me money to do this, but I don't care, I love it," Mackenzie says of "Finian."

Gets, arranging rehearsal time around his "Caroline" schedule, says thathe is used to the frantic pace from his work in series TV and that his experience as "the king of workshop productions" in New York has prepared him for anything.

"When I started to do television, where it's so free-form, I suddenly realized I had a gift for ad-libbing, and the more I do it, the more I love it when things go wrong, because that's when things come alive. That's the way I feel about this."

Marcovicci sees the Reprise! approach as crucial to the preservation of musical theater. "The only way in this day and age we are going to be able to continue the great art of musical theater is to present shows in this sort of interim stage," she says. "This is going to give just as much pleasure as if we had a helicopter, or a 75-foot staircase onstage. People are getting used to that, but I don't think that's healthy, because it makes it impossible to put on shows."

* "Finian's Rainbow," 8 p.m. tonight-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. At Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, UCLA. Ticketmaster (213) 480-3232 or UCLA box office (310) 825-2101. $40 and $45.

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