Entertainment » Theatre

The Irish and How They Got That Way

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 12, 2018
William Gardiner*, Ceit Zweil*, Nile Hawver*, Michael Levesque, Kirsten Salpini, and Nicole Vander Laan
William Gardiner*, Ceit Zweil*, Nile Hawver*, Michael Levesque, Kirsten Salpini, and Nicole Vander Laan  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

How can you not have a hit on your hands when you're a Boston area theater company producing "The Irish and How They Got That Way," Frank McCourt's blend of Irish (and Irish-American) history and jukebox musical? Not to mention you're putting the show up for a run in March, to coincide with St. Patrick's Day? Consider me sold.

McCourt's show is built around a history lesson that recollects the legend of how the Irish monk St. Brendan discovered the New World, examines the long and fractious relationship between Ireland and England - not by way of guns and warfare, but through the lens of cuisine - before then traveling to America along with a wave of migrants fleeing the devastating famine, a failure of agriculture only in that the potato crops died, while wheat, oats, and livestock throve. (England made no provision for the fact that a quarter of the Irish population was on its way to starving to death; they simply continued their policies of importing Ireland's produce for English tables.) Demonized and marginalized in America, the Irish nonetheless distinguished themselves in the Civil War, became heavily involved in politics, and led the labor movement that paved the way to modern prosperity.

It's a journey that takes place in song as well as anecdote. Some passages come across as mini-lectures, but because they serve as introductions to traditional Irish songs - a couple dozen in all, from "Rare Ould Times" and "Skibereen" to "Danny Boy" and U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - these nuggets are easily digested. It helps that they are served up with humor, some of it broadly self-deprecating, as well as pathos where appropriate. But life is short, so why dwell on sadness? One of the show's best moments is "Finnegan's Wake," in which the title character falls off a ladder to his death, is laid out and celebrated by family and friends, and wakes up - not dead after all - when a brawl erupts and he's splashed with whiskey. There are more than a few stereotypes present in this song, but there's also a spirit of ownership and defiance. McCourt's message resonates: We're tough; we're scrappy; and no matter what's thrown at us, we like a good laugh.

Scenic designer Shelley Barish creates a versatile space patterned after a barn (no need for fancy settings or fine airs here!). Kirstin Salpini, in addition to being a member of the cast, undertakes musical arrangement and music direction. John Stone's sound design works seamlessly - there are no microphone problems, and Stone also manages to avoid tinny, muddy, or muzzled sound quality, all of which helps the cast to deliver the goods.

And it's a showcase of splendid singers, including Salpini, William Gardiner, Ceit Zweil, Michael Levesque, Nicole Vander Laan, and Nile Hawver. The cast also proves themselves musically able with a variety of instruments: Pennywhistle, washing board, and spoons created the music, along with piano, Cajon, and guitars. Under Dawn M. Simmons' direction, the cast members establish a camaraderie that often seems like it might be improvised. They're having a good time up there on the stage, and the way they invite the audience to partake in their frolics makes ensures that the fun flows freely. If you're Irish American, you'll burst with pride at the resourcefulness and resilience of your forebears. And if you're not? That's okay, too. Like St. Patrick's Day, "The Irish and How They Got That Way" is for everyone.


"The Irish and How They Got That Way" continues through March 25 at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. For tickets and more information please go to https://www.goldstar.com/venues/stoneham-ma/greater-boston-stage-company?gclid=CjwKCAjwypjVBRANEiwAJAxlIrevz6AO70LlDIOpeHexU9gqR-LFR3AwNGJeqTDcaDuvr6KqPBSjzhoCW5kQAvD_BwE

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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