Magical Realist

Photo: Maia Rosenblum

When the music director of City Center’s Encores! series approached Kate Baldwin about a revival of Finian’s Rainbow, the 1947 Ireland-meets-Missitucky chestnut, Baldwin’s response was surprisingly impolitic. “Oh, no,” Baldwin remembers saying. “That show sucks! I’ve done it twice and it never works!” It’s true that Finian’s is an odd duck, featuring a racist white senator who’s turned black, a mute character who communicates solely through dance, and a lovelorn leprechaun. So it’s surprising that the production, opening on Broadway October 29, is such a swell entertainment, with Baldwin’s tart, beautifully sung performance as Sharon McLonergan (who has the showcase duet, “Old Devil Moon,” with Cheyenne Jackson) at its heart.

Full disclosure: I met Baldwin half a life ago, when we were Wisconsin high-schoolers in the same church youth group. Since then she’s spent years as a particular species of actress: the leading lady Broadway insiders love but never get to see. She got great parts, just not in New York. “When you sign in for a New York audition and Kelli O’Hara’s already been there, and Kerry Butler, and Erin Dilly,” she says, “you’re like, Great, they’re looking for small blonde girls.” Whereas brassy-but-lonely Sharon is tailor-made for Baldwin, who is entirely at home in Finian’s mid-century idiom.

After a preview, we arrive at the Broadway hangout Angus McIndoe, where a few freshly charmed theatergoers applaud Baldwin’s entrance. Once we’re seated, she gives me her pitch for Finian’s Rainbow. “I tell people it’s like The Ed Sullivan Show: ‘And now we’ll have some magic! Now we’ll have a minstrel number! Now we’ll have the girl who does ballet and doesn’t talk!’ ” She laughs. “At least you never get sick of anyone.”

Even the best pitch doesn’t guarantee an audience, of course. Then again, the cast didn’t expect to get this far. “When we all got together for the first rehearsal,” says Baldwin, “Cheyenne says, ‘So we’re going to Broadway, right?’ And we all laughed. This show? Never. Never.” Adapters David Ives and Arthur Perlman, anticipating the cynicism, streamlined the book scenes—“They just went on and on, corny joke after corny joke,” says Baldwin—and left in place Yip Harburg and Burton Lane’s songs and the message of tolerance. It is, after all, a musical from 1947 with as many black characters as white ones. “At least it’s not Show Boat,” Baldwin concludes, “where they use the N-word!”

Magical Realist