Irish Tony Award winner Jim Norton (for his starring role in Conor McPherson’s "The Seafarer" on Broadway) was back in New York last week to play man on the make Finian McLonergan in the New York City Center Encores! revival of the irresistible 1947 musical gem "Finian’s Rainbow," which ended its four night run on Sunday.
Norton, 71, was a revelation in the role, mining unexpectedly deep wells of paternal tenderness while also playing a loveable rogue with enormous conviction. Although the show was staged as part of the Encores! series (which means it was given a fraction of the usual rehearsal time and budget) there’s no doubt director Warren Carlyle and his cast delivered a production that’s more than ready for the bright lights of Broadway.
You could write the show’s impressively silly plot on a napkin. After stealing a pot of gold from the leprechauns, the elderly but still sprightly Finian absconds from Ireland in the company of his unsuspecting daughter Sharon (Kate Baldwin). It turns out that Finian believes if you bury gold near the legendary Fort Knox it will magically grow and multiply, so he sets sail for America to secure his daughter’s fortune.
Soon the hapless two fetch up in a small southern town in the mythical state of Misstucky. But unbeknownst to them they’ve been followed by Og (Jeremy Bobb), a distinctly randy and resourceful leprechaun who’s determined to recover his treasure.
As all this nonsense plays out we’re being treated to one of the most beguiling scores in musical theater history. The song “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” may just be, as one character says, cheap Irish sentiment, but it’s also enormously potent, leaving the audience misty eyed and nostalgic as it recurs throughout this hypnotic show.
The New York City Center is a vast theater, one of the largest in New York, yet this foot-tapping musical filled the hall to the rafters. It obviously helps that the cast reads like a who’s who of Broadway talent, including Phillip Bosco, Cheyenne Jackson and Ruben Santiago.
As Sharon, Finian’s high spirited and indulgent daughter, Baldwin was aided by the firing-on-all-cylinders performance given by emerging star Jackson, who has become the go-to guy for all new musical shows.
Jackson, who made his name starring in "Xanadu," "Altar Boyz," "Aida" and "All Shook Up," plays Woody Mahoney, a local Irish American boy in trouble with Senator Rawkins (Bosco) the nefarious landlord who wants to buy off his property for a song.
Although the musical was written in 1947, it’s suspicion of politicians’ motives and merchant bankers’ fidelity drew huge laughs from the New York audience.
“Look here, I finally got something ever better than money,” shouts Woody, “I got credit!” If the sting in the tail of that line wasn’t heard in 1947, it leads to uproarious laughter in 2009.
“The Great Come and Get it Day,” the terrific song that celebrates illusory wealth, closes off act one. It feels so fresh and ironic that it might have been written last week.
Wiley old Senator Hawkins is not only a landlord out to cheat his tenants, he’s also an unrepentant racist and immigrant basher. (“Since my folks first came here 216 years ago we’ve had nothing but trouble from immigrants,” complains the old bigot).
A good old boy in a white suit and hat, Hawkins is every inch the entitled monster that the script and Bosco’s performance make him out to be. Newcomer Sharon is so disgusted by him that she eventually wishes he were black – and right away her wish is granted, sending shockwaves and laughter through the community.
Some might say the racial aspect to the show has dated, but that would be to assume that most people have become colorblind since 1947, which is a difficult premise to accept, even in the era of the Obama administration. In a musical where a white man demonstrates to a black man how he should walk and talk, there’s still more than a little tension behind all the surface humor.
What lifts "Finian’s Rainbow" is Burton Lane’s incomparable score and E.Y. Harburg’s clever lyrics. Norton’s subtle and unexpectedly heart rending performance as the old man who only wants the best for his little girl before he shuffles over the rainbow makes this show one of the most affecting seen on Broadway in years.