Ask his fellow performers to describe him and they'll say two things - his eyebrows are humongous, and he has the most beautiful voice on Broadway.
Brian D'Arcy James, who is currently playing the lead role in the Broadway show “Shrek The Musical,” is that rare thing, an actor who is also a singer, and - rarer still - one who has succeeded in both aspects of his career.
All the critical attention and acting awards in recent years have ensured that he's become the go-to guy for new musicals and challenging new acting roles. But in particular, casting directors think of him when a promising new Irish play is about to hit town (an ever more regular occurrence).
It's not bad work for an Irish-American boy from Saginaw, Michigan, but d'Arcy James' had a classic Irish-American upbringing. His grandfather Harry Kelly was the governor of Michigan, and his grandmother, a spirited Irish woman named Anne O'Brien, often threatened to disown any member of her family who had not read Leon Uris' novel "Trinity." “I grew up very in touch of my heritage," he tells IrishCentral.
It was while working with Belfast-born, Oscar nominated actor Kenneth Branagh at the Irish Arts Center in New York in the nineties on Branagh's play "Public Enemy" that d'Arcy James discovered he could play Irish roles convincingly.
Casting agents took note, and he eventually found himself being asked to audition for the latest Irish plays. "That play put me in the running in terms of theaters giving me a chance to do these things. The impression was cemented when I was cast in Conor McPherson's play 'The Good Thief.' It was a defining experience in this city and in my career."
"The Good Thief" was such a hit with New York audiences that it transferred to off-Broadway, also playing in Los Angles and Ireland. In Ireland, d'Arcy James' proved he could even play being Irish in Ireland – his accent was that
believable. "It's an amazing story and it's a challenge for an actor. I feel very proud of it," he says.
Shifting into the darker material of English-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's violent "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" was a different kind of challenge. D'Arcy James had to become part of an ensemble that had already performed the play in Ireland and London. "We - meaning the American actors - were inserted into this play that was already successfully working. That was a little intimidating for me because I didn't want to drop the ball, you know?" he says. "I didn't want to be the Yank in the corner. But I've never experienced a comedy where the reactions are so pronounced."
"One of the first jobs I got in New York was in a musical. But I've always been conscious about carving out jobs that didn't require singing." In "Shrek: The Musical" d'Arcy James has taken on one of the greatest performance challenges of his career.
First of all there's the prosthetic giant green ogre costume itself - it takes 45 minutes to put on (and take off). Then there's the weight of it. After that there's the challenge of making it look lifelike, and beyond that there's the task of trying to sing and dance in it. That d'Arcy James succeeds in every one of these challenges is a tribute to his skills. "This show was not on my radar whatsoever until I got a call to audition. I was just baffled they had asked," he says.
"Not because I didn't want to do it, but because I thought unless I'm completely delusional I'm not the right guy. But it turns out they were thinking of me, and when I got it I was over the moon. I really had no idea was going to be done. I just knew the source material was so good that I was really excited about it."
His concerns were ill-founded. "Shrek: The Musical" is a treat from start to finish. Alongside his own barnstorming performance, he's paired with Broadway It-Girl Sutton Foster, who at one point whips off her long frock to reveal an emerald green Riverdancing miniskirt that is set off by her high-kicking steps and her sparkling tiara.
The musical doesn't take itself seriously, and so its potent charm emerges early on and never lets up. It's currently playing through August 2009 - although it deserves to run for years.
"Shrek: The Musical" is now playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway and West 52nd Street. Call 1-800-432-7250 for tickets.