Although they’re still in rehearsal, and there are few certain bets in the world of Broadway theater, here’s one prediction you can take to the bank -- when the Irish themed musical “Finian’s Rainbow” opens in October it will become a hit for the ages.
It’s not hard to see why. Featuring a flawless cast of A-list Broadway talent, the show’s score is possibly one of the most beguiling ever written.
“Finian’s Rainbow” boasts songs so memorable and transporting that audiences often start applauding before they’ve even ended. This is music from the golden age of the American musical, a heady brew of misty-eyed Irish ballads and Harlem-era jazz numbers that’s guaranteed to tug your heartstrings and get your feet tapping.
If you haven’t seen it, it would be easy to assume that “Finian’s Rainbow” is another near lethal dose of offensive Oirish hokum. But did you know that the show tackles what happens to ordinary people during a credit crisis (that could have been ripped from this week’s headlines)?
Ten minutes into this production you’ll realize that beneath its big warmhearted exterior, “Finian’s Rainbow” is still packing a social punch that’s as potent as when it the show was first written 60 years ago.
At its core, “Finian’s Rainbow” tackles the way racial intolerance blights the lives of everyone it touches. That’s as dangerous a subject for a musical as can be, but “Finian’s Rainbow” takes it on with wit and a rare degree of sensitivity. Beneath the gentle laughs, this show has real bite.
The story begins when old man Finian McLonergan (played by Jim Norton, who looks born to play the role) moves to the Deep South from old Ireland with his daughter Sharon (played by the electrifying singer Kate Baldwin).
Finian has a plan to bury a pot of gold stolen from the leprechauns near Fort Knox in the mistaken belief that it will grow even more. But outraged by the theft, a leprechaun named 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.
As plots go it’s completely ridiculous, but it allows the show to tackle an issue that’s all too real -- what happens to a society when the bigoted and corrupt leader Senator Billboard Rawkins throws his weight around, thereby allowing reality to show up in all its ugliness, until wishes are made over the magical crock of gold restoring justice. This being a Broadway musical, all roads lead to the happiest of happy endings.
“The show is a very strange and wonderful hybrid of plotlines,” Baldwin tells the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.com. “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.”
Thankfully all the cheap Celtic sentiment is kept to a minimum too, with help from the savvy actors (Norton in particular) who are happy to undercut it with a knowing smile.
“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.
Baldwin also admits she’s starting to feel quietly confident about the show’s chances with the critics and the public next month.
“I was rather nervous during the first rehearsed performances just because I’ve been here in New York City for 10 years and haven’t had an opportunity like this one to be front and center. It was my co-star Cheyenne Jackson who calmed me down and let me know it was supposed to be fun,” she says.
“Now since we’ve debuted it in New York and critics liked it so much I feel like the opening will be icing on the cake since we’ve already done it before. I’m not nervous now. I’m very eager.”
Like her co-star Jackson, Baldwin actually has some Irish ancestry to draw from -- and better yet, she’s actually spent time in Ireland.
“I do have some Irish heritage. I went to Ireland in 1998 and had a really lovely time. To top that up 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,” Jackson says.
Speaking of guides, the show’s English director Warren Carlyle, who has eight West End musicals under his belt says, “We’ve had a couple of months between the original Encores performance at City Center and the upcoming Broadway premiere and everyone has just stepped up their game in the meantime.
“Now the show’s fully designed and costumed, with a full orchestra, so it’s going to be a lush and magical looking production. All the things we dreamt of during the original performance get to come true now.”
For Carlyle, it’s the cast that makes the show sing.
“It’s one of the greatest casts I’ve ever worked with. They’re all top notch in their own way. Jim Norton has a very mercurial quality, Kate has forthrightness, and Cheyenne has an American quality -- a big square jaw, blue eyes and white teeth, and he’s a big guy who opens his arm to sing.
“And Chris Fitzgerald plays a randy leprechaun! Somehow this story pulls them all together. They somehow all unite in the telling of this story.”
For Jackson, being the emerging king of Broadway is not how he sees himself, but it’s no less true. But being a country boy from rural Idaho who came to New York with a dream in his heart in 2002, he’s not one to let success go to his head.
“I really do wake up and say to the mirror, ‘Oh my God, I get to do what I love – work on Broadway with all of these people I’ve looked up to so long.’ I never take it for granted,” he told the Irish Voice.
“In every show I do there’s usually one person I want to throw up against a wall because they’re so obnoxious. But in this case the principals are terrific. When it all comes together it’s really something. All of us are pulling each other up.
“This is my fifth or sixth Broadway show and you never know from the get-go what the outcome is going to be but we all keep coming back to the word magic. As long as we don’t mess with it there’s going to be a nice niche for us on Broadway. A lot of people are going to discover and rediscover this show.”
Although Jackson is really the poster boy for the all-American, he also has Irish blood too.
“My dad is Irish. His father was too. He identifies heavily with that part of his heritage. Now I’m playing an Irish American and it’s not such a stretch in that sense,” he says.
Irish actor Norton is delighted to be the show’s breakout star, because this time it means his grandchildren can finally see him in a New York show.
“I’m thrilled about that because I’m always in shows like Conor McPherson’s ‘The Seafarer’ which is not appropriate for children. But this is something the whole family can see with its beautiful, voluptuous music,” he says.
“There are so many shows about Ireland that we can find offensive because of the manner in which they’re presented, but I think that this one is handled delicately. My character is just looking for what we’re all looking for -- a bit of peace and happiness.”
“Finian’s Rainbow” plays at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Previews begin on October 8; the show opens on October 29. For tickets call 212-239-6262 or visit www.finiansonbroadway.com.