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A CurtainUp Review
The Irish. . ..and How They Got That Way
The Irish people and its lively arts are firmly acclimated into American culture. Ask anyone, Irish or not, who attended New York City's public school system in the last half century about preparing for St. Patrick's Day, learning the Irish jig, the school annual sing-along of "Galway Bay" and "The Rose of Tralee". Except for leprechaun myths, not much Irish history was taught back then, no accounts of misery and discrimination. The gritty side of Ireland and the higher forms of Irish literature and poetry came later through theater, poetry and books, and one of the most harrowing was Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes .
Raised in Limerick, McCourt created a musical scan of popular Irish heritage, legend and wit with The Irish...and How They Got That Way. One year after his death, the Irish Repertory Theatre is reviving this musical revue. There is not much in the way of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce here, but it's generous with letters, news documents, memories, folk songs, Irish influence on American folk songs, and the enduring patriotic tunes of George M. Cohan. History interwoven with songs is effective, but something has to give, and here it is the drama. Even though directed by the Irish Rep's Charlotte Moore, there is no fluidity and little spark in this show's ambitious agenda.
Truly heartrending are the tragic accounts of the potato famine with graphic narratives of suffering. A traditional song, Skibbereen, about one town's starvation, adds fierce emotion to the famine horrors. When the Irish emigrated to America, they faced new torments of discrimination related here in stories and the effective use of a song, " No Irish Need Apply" to highlight the job barriers.
Yet, McCourt also included genuinely snappy examples of the wry, self-deprecating Irish humor. Much of the blame for Irish woes is directed at the British. The Irish peasants said, "God Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created a famine." McCourt noted, "If the English hadn't invaded Ireland we wouldn't have had the potato famine and we'd never have come to America. My God, there would have been no James Cagney, Pat O' Brien,,Maureen O'Hara, no Spencer Tracy, no Milo O'Shea!".
Shawn Lewis' set resembles a neighborhood pub, with jugs, a small Statue of Liberty, posters on the walls, jugs, liquor bottles, a map of Ireland and a photo of John F. Kennedy. Against illustrative projections on the back screen, six performers step up to deliver touching anecdotes, often poetic memories, quotes, songs, or a jig and then step back. Unfortunately, their movements are stiff and look staged.
Heading the cast is Gary Troy, a pug of a lad with a commanding voice. Ciaran Sheehan, one of the two original members of the 1997 production, returns with his lovely tenor voice shadowed with melancholy. His rendition of " Danny Boy" is poignant without being maudlin. Kerry Conte brings an earnest energy and the other colleen, Terry Donnelly from the original production, delivers some stirring monologues but her singing veers off pitch. Playing violin, mandolin and the percussive bodhran is Patrick Shields, wearing a long braid and usually off to the side. The musical director and pianist, Kevin B. Winebold, adds vocals and an accordion. Many of the songs are wisely condensed, used merely to flavor the anecdotes. Other songs are sung completely through and of these, "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" is particularly moving.
The show ends as a heartfelt salute to Frank McCourt who loved his Ireland, its spirit, its eloquence and its humor. The authoritative Gary Troy repeats the opening words: "We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams". And, as a final cheer, "Slainté!".
All that was missing was a pint of Guinness.