Irish star Jim Norton makes 'Finian's Rainbow' a critic-proof Broadway musical


Irish poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde had a simple formula for artistic success: “Start at the top and then sit on it.” It’s advice that the director and cast of Finian’s Rainbow have every reason to take to heart, because their highly anticipated revival at the Saint James Theatre on 44th Street is almost certain to become a smash hit.

In a lucky break that almost never happens on Broadway, this production had the critics raving before it officially opened. Back in March the show was first presented in a stripped down production at Manhattan’s City Center as part of their Encores! series, an annual program of classic musical revivals that’s been running since 1994. From its very first performance Finian’s Rainbow was, as they say, a monster hit.

Cheyenne Jackson, the smoldering all-American star of the show, tells Irish America, “I’ve been involved in a dozen of these fit ’em up revivals and every time there’s been terrific buzz about the show transferring to Broadway. But Finian’s Rainbow is the first show I’ve been in that actually has. And I can tell you I am thrilled to be a part of it.”

For the show’s breakout star, Tony-winning Irish actor Jim Norton, it’s an opportunity to do something that he rarely can nowadays – work in a production that’s appropriate for his grandchildren to see.

“Because I’m always in shows like Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, my grandchildren have actually never seen me in a play,” Norton tells Irish America. “But this is something the whole family can see – including my own grandkids – because it’s appropriate for any age and it’s beautiful, voluptuous music.”

Resisting every temptation to play to Irish stereotype, Norton’s a marvel in the title role of Finian McLonergan, a lovable Irish rogue taking a shortcut to easy street. Onstage his unexpectedly subtle performance wisely lets the paternal bond between himself and his daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin) become the emotional center of the show. The other actors have taken note, too.

“Jim’s performance, because it’s so truthful, has made all of us step up our game,” Baldwin tells Irish America. “Jim will only present you with what he knows will ring true. There’s no melancholy about Jim, his spirit has infused the cast and has made us all a little bit lighter about the material, so when it gets to the poignant parts you’re not mired in sappy stuff,” Baldwin adds.

If you haven’t seen it, it would be easy to assume that Finian’s Rainbow is a lethal dose of the sappy stuff from the 1940s. But ten minutes into this production you’ll realize that beneath its warmhearted exterior, Finian’s Rainbow is packing a social punch that’s as potent now as the day it was first produced over 60 years ago. (A celebrated 2004 revival of the show at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan won critical acclaim but didn’t make it to the Great White Way.)

The plot is famously convoluted: when Finian McLonergan emigrates from Ireland with his daughter Sharon and a stolen pot of leprechaun gold stowed away in his bag, we know that retribution is certain to follow. Sure enough, it arrives in the shape of Og, a lecherous young Irish leprechaun in green figure-hugging Spandex (Christopher Fitzgerald). Outraged by the theft, Og has followed father and daughter all the way from home, desperate to recover his stolen treasure before the loss of it turns him permanently human.

Alongside all the giddy theatrics, the show tackles an issue that’s all too real: what happens when a bigoted leader like Senator Billboard Rawkins takes control, enacting laws that are actually smokescreens for his racism. Unfortunately for him, he reveals his opinions to Sharon, who accidentally turns the old bigot into a black man when she curses him near a pot of magic gold. Onstage a bigoted white man is improved by making him black, a device that still resonates in these so-called post racial times.

“The show is a very strange and wonderful hybrid of plotlines,” Baldwin tells Irish America. “You have an economic storyline, you’ve got a racial storyline, you’ve got an immigrant storyline and you have all this leprechaun magic as well. So our director made sure that we had very distinct people in the cast, giving each plotline direction from moment to moment.”

Like her co-star Jackson, Baldwin has some Irish ancestry to draw from – and better yet, she’s actually spent time there. “I do have some Irish heritage and I went to Ireland in 1998 and had a really lovely time. To top that off I check in with Jim every day to ask him about my accent work and he’s so generous always, he lets me know if I go too far. He’s a great guide.”

The show’s English director, Warren Carlyle, an immigrant to these shores himself, finds he has a strong personal affinity for the two central characters. With eight West End hits to his credit, Carlyle still finds himself identifying with the journeys taken by Finian and Sharon, who upend their own lives, move to a new country, meet new people and start all over again.