Irish actor Jim Norton is a national treasure who would probably balk at the description. Best known to the Irish for his luminous performances in the plays of Dublin playwright Conor McPherson and as Bishop Brennan in Father Ted, he’s long ago been discovered by Broadway producers as the go-to talent to carry a show.
That’s exactly what he does in the revival of the 1985 musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood now at the Roundabout Theatre, which is loosely based on the final book by Charles Dickens, the one he unhappily died without completing in 1870 (leaving the audience to decide who the killer is).
Norton is on stage from the opening moment to the final curtain, and it’s his variety performance skills that lift the production to the next level.
Gifted with a rich baritone that conveys his inner emotions and the droll sense of fun that often animates him, Norton is a revelation as The Chairman, the master of ceremonies who oversees the production and explains to the audience what’s at stake.
The Chairman introduces us to a series of likely villains, all of them rogues with motives for wanting Drood dead. First up is the choirmaster with the Jekyll and Hyde personality, John Jasper. Jasper has a secret passion for Rosa Budd (the names in this book are not subtle).
Problem is, Rosa Bud is engaged to be betrothed to his nephew Edwin Drood. So there’s your motive, governor.
The next potential killer is Reverend Crisparkle, who had a passion for Rosa’s late mother and now may have murdered Drood in a case of mistaken identity. Other equally oddly named characters with murder on their mind include Neville Landless, Princess Puffer, Bazzard and Durdles.
It quickly becomes clear that it doesn’t matter that Drood is dead and it certainly doesn’t matter who killed him. The musical is an excuse for a series of song and dance numbers that only want to delight you.
“I always seem to end up in these parts where I’m told, ‘You’re the engine of this play,’” Norton, 74, tells the Irish Voice. “You just have to get out there and drive it. But it’s really exciting.”
The legendary Studio 54, which before it was the home of disco was once (and is again now) a gorgeous 19th century theater, makes a perfect home for Dickens’ tale of intrigue and murder. But it wasn’t the only attraction that drew Norton to the production.
“Warren Carlyle, the choreographer on the show, previously directed me in Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway and that was a very important element in my saying yes. I was just so flattered to be asked. They just rang me up out of the blue,” said Norton.
Norton’s being too modest. He shares the stage with Broadway royalty Chita Rivera, and the truth is he has long ago become Broadway royalty himself.
“I’m not known as a singer and a dancer, except in the way that all Irish people can sing and dance,” he laughs.
Norton’s theater training at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1960s saw him earn his stripes in the company of fellow greats like Milo O’Shea.
“It was me and Milo doing 16 different sketches a night. That’s when I learned the quick-change characterization, which helps me in this show,” says Norton.
“The Victorian theater fascinates me and Dublin is a great place to grow up in if you love theater. What I noticed was that vocally they were extraordinary. That’s what I’m trying to bring to the role I play.”
To be on stage with Rivera is like being plugged into the national grid, Norton says.
“There’s so much energy and generosity of spirit. All the young actors adore her and she’s so helpful with them all. It’s a very happy show to work in,” he offers.
Norton is fascinated by the stylistic differences between Irish and American actors which become apparent in the show. But the real element of danger comes in opening up the show to the public by breaking the fourth wall. Asking the general public for their opinions is always a dangerous enterprise, but doing it every night and at two matinees is asking for trouble.
“You’re up there on a high wire without a net every time,” explains Norton.
“Anything can happen and sometimes it does because we can never anticipate. Last night the actress the audience selected to be the murdered found out whilst she was still onstage. She had to come back on and start a huge improvisation. It’s a new show every night.”
McPherson fans will also be delighted to hear that Norton is in talks to star in a new play by the Dublin-based playwright on Broadway in 2013.
“He has a new play about which nothing can be said yet. But we’ll see how things work out whether I’ll be free to do it,” says Norton.
Back on Broadway, twice in the same year, it’s the best of times for Norton.
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