The Irish... And How They Got That Way
Written by Frank McCourt
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Hokey as it is, and barring some deep-seated aversion to Irish music, you may find yourself rapidly becoming enthralled by Irish Rep's revival of the late Frank McCourt
's cultural crash course in song, The Irish... And How They Got That Way
(through September 5). The company premiered the musical in 1997, and original cast members Terry Donnelly and Ciaran Sheehan are back, along with director Charlotte Moore, for this memorial of sorts following McCourt's death just over a year ago. As opposed to his best known work, Angela's Ashes
, The Irish
all but does away with any type of conventional narrative, tacking almost forty songs to a timeline of Irish history. The facts are well researched, often supported with quotations from diaries and newspapers, but most will already be familiar with these points. Besides, nobody is here to broaden their knowledge of Irish-American labor movements.
The small stage is littered with antique trunks, suitcases and barrels that literalize the immense collective cultural baggage of the Irish, and underline the musical's movement across the Atlantic. That clumsy metaphor, though it happens to facilitate fast accessorizing during quick transitions between songs, clutters the stage and unduly restricts the actors' movements. (On the night I attended, during the otherwise outstanding vaudeville-inspired "Give My Regards to Broadway
" that opens the second act, one actor nearly fell over a basket.) Still, the ensemble of Kerry Conte, Donnelly, Sheehan and Gary Troy fares very well, especially with help from musical director Kevin B. Winebold and musician Patrick Shields. Each lead has at least one superb solo moment: Conte's heart-crushing "Fields of Athenry
"; Donnelly's rollicking "Finnegan's Wake
"; Ciaran's ethereal "Danny Boy
"; and Troy's boisterous "The Holy Ground
." In its play of ensemble and individual dynamics, at least, The Irish
offers some of the pleasures of narrative drama.
For the most part, though, McCourt's sung social history feels more like musical medley than musical theater. Pleasantly didactic interludes rarely last more than a minute, contextualizing the next favorite tune with official and vernacular accounts from famine ("Skibbereen
") to families meeting on Civil War battlefields ("Ireland Boys Hurray
") and immigrant labor blues ("Paddy on the Railway
"). Shawn Lewis's excessive set-dressing and largely superfluous (save during the potato famine passage) wall-sized projections contribute to the sense that a story is being presented, not played. The biggest musical misstep comes with the finale's overlong rendition of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
" (another bad omen for Bono and The Edge's long-delayed Spider-Man
Broadway musical?). The song's mix of deep-seated dissatisfaction and resilient hope echoes the preceding compilation's sentiments, but its utter lack of "Irishness" seems out of step with The Irish
's prideful, melancholic patriotism. "Sunday Bloody Sunday
" would have provided a more rousing conclusion, but McCourt carefully keeps a safe distance from recent tragedies. Risking little, his musical history lesson doesn't do much more than present a pleasant compilation album with contextual liner notes.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)