The House of Finnegan/book by Bill Rich; music & lyrics by Steve Kopandy/directed & choreographed byAlissa-Nicole Koblentz/El Portal’s Monroe Forum Theatre/through October 28
“Finnegan’s Wake”, a popular Irish ballad, from the music hall tradition, and made famous by The Clancy Brothers, invokes the joy of living among the rowdy Irish, telling how, through the perils of liquor, a man falls and then rises to live again.
In the original world premiere musical The House of Finnegan, grandfather Jerry Finnegan (John McCool Bowers), once a two time Tony winning Broadway star, is now confined to a wheelchair, but he lives life to the fullest measure, refusing to give in to old age. When he is not doling out pleasantries at home with daughter Liz (Laura Wolfe) and granddaughter Carolyn (Rachel Albrecht), he parties and whoops it up at the local watering hole called the Salty Shamrock with cronies Ralph (Raffi Mauro) and Sid (Michael Tatlock) and old gal pal Rhonda (Lori D’Itri). Jerry was the apple of every woman’s eye in his day and refuses to let go of his former image. There’s a big surprise in store for Jerry Finnegan. Old flame Susan (Shamika Franklin), also a Tony winner and Jerry’s favorite leading lady, moves into the neighborhood. Through the friendship of their granddaughters, Jerry and Susan, like day and night in their philosophies of life, are reunited. But all is not rosy! Pains of the past resurface, their differences more a strain than ever, putting a damper on any hope for the future.
In a nutshell, this is the crux of The House of Finnegan. It’s all about Jerry and his overly ample zest for living, which is both positive and negative, creating the good as well as the bad. Real estate agent Liz meets mortician Pete (Marc Ginsburg) and marries. It’s a second marriage for both of them and the future for them seems bright. Prospects even look up for little Carolyn, who gets to share her new abode with Pete’s son Timmy (Mateo Gonzales), who just happens to have a crush on her. But it’s Jerry’s joyous presence that supplies most of the gusto of the show with some jubilant song and dance numbers at hand. Nonetheless, a large dose of tragedy lurks. After all, what would Finnegan be without a wake? What would life be without an unexpected surprise around every corner?
I really wanted to love The House of Finnegan and in the beginning was automatically pulled in by Bowers’ terrific charisma and showmanlike flair. There are two major flaws in the show. The first is the casting of Shamika Franklin as Susan. Although a capable actress and singer, she is too young for the role. She is not a match for Jerry agewise, and that detracts from the credibility of their relationship. I felt I was looking at a father and his daughter rather than two lovers.The second major problem is that book writer Bill Rich has Susan walk out in Act II and never brings her back to put closure on the glorious experiences that she and Jerry had. It seems more fitting that Susan sing “Emptiness” in Act II, not Rhonda. I loved the visions of younger Jerry and Susan in their onstage dances together that flashed in and out of the scenes like memory spurts. ( Christopher Lindsey, Melissa L. Williams)
Apart from Bowers’ engaging performance, other standout work comes from Wolfe as the loveable Liz, Ginsburg as Pete, and delicious revelry from Mauro, Tatlock and D’Itri as the aging pals. D’Itri does beautifully with the still sexy Rhonda, and even though I felt the character of Susan should sing “Emptiness” D’Itri did a wonderful job. Little Rachel Albrecht is lacking real heart, a bit too mechanical and rote as Carolyn, but she is a terrific belter. This often happens with child stars and with continued work she will blossom. Praise as well to the entire ensemble who dance and sing well under the fine staging and choreography of Alissa Nicole-Koblentz. Kudos as well to the onstage musicians under the exuberant baton of Bonnie Janofsky.
With reworking and adjustments, The House of Finnegan may have a chance. It needs a lot of cuts and fine tuning. As is, it is somewhat pleasant fare….and feel free to bring the kiddies!