J. Ernest Green is musical directing Finian’s Rainbow at Live Arts Maryland on Friday and Saturday, February 12th and 13th. He talks here about the decision to mount the recent Broadway revival and his love for this iconic musical.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell us where we may have seen your work on the stage.
J. Ernest Green: In the DC area I have served as a cover conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra and was Marvin Hamlisch’s conductor for almost twelve years until his passing. I have also worked with Step Afrika! at the Atlas Theatre as well as conducting a number of the DC regional orchestras. For many year I was the Music Director for the Young Victorian Theater (an operetta company in Baltimore). I am currently the Artistic Director/Conductor for Live Arts Maryland where we are producing Finian’s Rainbow.
Why did you select Finian’s Rainbow as your production?
I worked on a summer theater production of Finian’s in Ohio when I was growing up and I was always captivated by the music. Great songs like “Old Devil Moon” and “Look to the Rainbow” have become standards. I did a concert with MET Opera star Mignon Dunn and I asked her one day if she wanted to sing anything else on the program we were doing and she said “yes! Look to the Rainbow.” When I asked about this she told me that when she was first starting out singing at the MET she would go to see “Finian’s Rainbow” because she knew someone in the cast and had fallen in love with that song.
Then a couple of years ago Bernard Dotson (who was in the Broadway revival in 2009) and I were talking about shows we would like to do and again “Finian’s Rainbow” came up. So in a way this show has been with me most of my life and I thought it was time for me to do it!
How would you describe the score of Finian’s Rainbow?
The score is interesting because it covers a lot of musical ground. Blues and R&B influences go hand in had with lush musical theater ballads and light show tunes. All of these musical influences are used to tell the story from different perspectives that range from the African-American workers in the fields to the Irish cast just arrived here to the bigoted Senator and his cronies. At its heart this show really uses the score to tell the story.
What does the show have to say to today’s audiences and how will they relate to it?
The version we are doing is leaner than the big Broadway version many people may be used to. It is more intimate and a lot of fun. This version was created by the Irish Repertory Theatre and really strips away all of the excess so that what we are left with is great music, a wickedly funny script and a great story to tell.
What was your and Director Rick Hammerly’s original vision for the show and how have you designers helped to bring that vision to life?
From the outset we have been focused on telling the story of Finian and his antics as he deals with a new world where he has come to hide a crock of gold he has stolen from a Leprechaun. In this new world he has fled to there is also a bit of his old world of Ireland in the form of a the Leprechaun who has come to take back his gold… This is a pretty convoluted set of circumstances to start with so we have tried to find ways of keeping things fresh and light.
What have been some of the major challenges you have faced directing the show, and working in this space?
I think one of the biggest challenges with doing shows like this at MD Hall is keeping the intimate feel in a 750+ seat theater. Musically the space is really nice (now that the hall has been renovated) – but if you are not careful it can be a little big for a show like this. We want to make the audience feel like they are in the action too!
Introduce the readers to the lead actors and who they play. What impresses you the most about their performances?
Catrin Davies (Susan) has been in many productions with me. She is a wonderful artist who has a way of drawing the audience in. Playing opposite here is Matt Gibson (Woody) a fabulously talented actor I worked with in New York last spring when I did a performance of Sweet Smell of Success – he is a great singer and actor and sort of reminds of a classic era film star.
Jason Buckwalter (Og the Leprechaun) is someone I have worked with many times and what I love about Jason is his physicality onstage. He has a beautiful voice and he sort of commands the stage.
Bernard Dotson is playing one of the Gospeleers and is one of the most commanding performers I have worked with! He sings, he dances, he acts and he does them all brilliantly. Our audiences love him!
What is your favorite scene and what is your favorite song and why?
There are a number of scenes that I really like. In general I love the scenes with Og the Leprechaun and Finian and their banter! It is very funny and I always feel like there is so much there to work with. But you can’t go wrong with Susan’s song “Look to the Rainbow” either!
You are using the Broadway revival book. What is different in that book from the original book and/or production? Why did you decide to use it instead of the original book?
The original version is quite dated and many of the jokes are very specific cultural references that audiences today may not get. The issues of bigotry, racism, and political cronyism were all there in the script but were presented through the lens of 1947. I thought that these topics are still important today and didn’t want to make this a “period piece” but a show that was relevant today!
I read this version from IRT and felt like they nailed it when it came to keeping the whimsical character of the show while at the same time bringing it into the 21st century!
What do you want theatregoers to take with them when after seeing Finian’s Rainbow?
First and foremost I want them to have a great night at the theater. Just as important is getting them to think about the show afterward and realize that we are still faced with the same issues of racism, and intolerance that we were more than 50 years ago. If we can get them to think a bit about this instead of just accepting it, then maybe we will have also done some good!
Finian’s Rainbow plays on February 12th and 13, 2016 only at Live Arts on Friday, 2/12@7:30 PM & Sat 2/13 @3 and 8 PM at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call (410) 280-5640, or purchase them online. Directions and parking information is here.
Live Arts Maryland “Finian’s Rainbow,” Friday, 2/12@7:30 PM & Sat 2/13 @3 and 8 PM.