The Irish and How They Got That Way
In the Boston area, an Irish-themed revue might seem like a trite, obvious choice or even just redundant. But the Frank McCourt-penned The Irish and How They Got That Way is so charming, so beautifully sung, that it instead feels like worship -- by way of the pub.
Originally produced in 1997 by the Irish Repertory Theatre, "The Irish..." is at heart a well-done trip through the Irish-American songbook, folk songs mixed with Tin Pan Alley tunes and even more current hits. Although written by the same man who won the Pulitzer for "Angela's Ashes," there's no narrative; in between the songs are stories from history, anecdotes and one-liners, all delivered straight to the audience, all snapshots of the highs and lows of the Irish in America.
But the real emotion in the show comes not from the spoken words, even those as emotional as descriptions of the horror of the Irish potato famine, but from the musical numbers, such as the moving "Mrs. McGrath" about the experience of an Irish soldier in the Revolutionary War. A rousing rendition of "Finnegan's Wake" is much funnier than a slightly awkward scene that leads into it.
The reason the music is the heart of "The Irish..." is partially due to the music itself and largely due to the talents of this cast, reunited from the 2010 Philadelphia production of the show. All six members sing like dreams and also accompany themselves on instruments from piano to violin to dulcimer, at times literally passing around a guitar. There's a staggering amount of talent on that stage, which explodes when the cast proves they can also break out a heck of a tap dance in a salute to Irish-American composer and showman George M. Cohan.
Credit director Danielle Paccione also for keeping a show that could be merely people just standing around singing into a well-paced, visually interesting production, making the most of the simple set -- a small stage that could be from a pub, walls crowded with instruments, and a large floor space. Sebastian Goldberg, riffing on Peter Rios' original choreography, accelerates the show from nicely staged songs into full-on production numbers. The one production misstep is some scene-setting sound effects -- surf and gulls suggesting the seaside for example, that too frequently cut in abruptly, distracting from the mood rather than adding to it.
Some of the cast stands out vocally. Greg Hammer probably has the finest and certainly the biggest voice, a sweet Irish tenor that he employs classically in the standard "Danny Boy" and even takes some good-natured ribbing about. Janice Landry and Irene Molloy also shine with soulful altos, and Meredith Beck shows off a lovely soprano and a smattering of nice step dancing. Violin playing Andrew Crowe has an easy charm and a grittier sound, while music director Jon Dykstra pulls double duty with a soft but capable baritone.
But it's when the cast sings together that "The Irish..." glows with a lovely warmth. It's clear that the cast has performed together before, that they love singing this music and more that they love singing it together. It's that camaraderie that gives the show it's nifty blend of energy and easygoing charm. The quieter songs are well done but the rousing group numbers such as the 1970's "Rare Ould Times" and especially the exuberant finale of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" are wonderfully engaging. They and the cast create a show that's a communal joy, whether you're Irish or not.
The Irish and How They Got That Way continues through March 17, 2013 at Davis Square Theatre in Somerville. For more info you can go to the show's website.