By Bryan Clark
Photos by Carol Rosegg
A quick scan of the press notes for The Irish…and How They Got That Way seemed to promise a light cultural romp: a "tapestry of classical songs and stories." So I grabbed a pair of tickets, rang up an Irish lass—and I let the reference to "bitter irony" slide. But fair warning: the bitter irony does not slide by unnoticed. The wry frustration is central, and that core is both the rich pleasure and the challenging darkness of this musical revue.
Yes, it is in fact a revue. Due to the literary pedigree of author Frank McCourt, you might impulsively assume the show is a musical with a plot-driven book. It's not. McCourt connects a large selection of public-domain Irish songs with a basically chronological but occasionally meandering narrative of the history of the Irish people, from the Norman invasion to the apotheosis of U2. The narrative is always informative, frequently enlightening, and occasionally borders on didactic.
The show succeeds when it is active and on its feet. Dancing of any duration is welcome when it occurs, as is any stage movement at all. When one actor engages another in dialogue, we are watching a play for a passing moment. However, director Charlotte Moore keeps the cast of four actors and two musicians largely rooted in the same spot. In fairness, the writing does not lend itself well to staging, beyond show-and-tell. Still, numerous opportunities for onstage activity are missed. McCourt presents the Irish as a tribe who has fought its way past every obstacle, not one that sat idly by.
Two of the cast are Dublin-born holdovers from the 1997 world premiere at the same venue, and they bring an undeniable authenticity if not always the biggest bang. Terry Donnelly is arch, earthy, and entirely credible, but her darkness is so strong it actually pulls focus on occasion. Ciaran Sheehan has a resonant if somewhat bland tenor. But the show's real treat is Gary Troy, who leads the narrative and fully delivers the goods in song, dance, and earthy character creation.
McCourt's musical history of the Irish provides an amusing and thorough examination of how they got that way. It does not address what that Irish want to do, or have ever wanted to do, beyond surviving the injustices of this cruel world. The show's closing number, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," is a fitting selection, but would be even more appropriate to this show's message if the lyric were "I still don't know what I'm looking for." It is hard to guess what the reaction of most Irish people would be to this presentation, though I brought along one for that very purpose. But my Irish companion simply, and perhaps evasively, proclaimed that she "knew all of those songs, every one."
The Irish…and How They Got That Way
Written by Frank McCourt
Director: Charlotte Moore
Musical Director: Kevin B. Winebold
Choreographer: Barry McNabb
Set design: Shawn Lewis
Costume design: David Toser
Lighting design: Michael Gottlieb
Projections: Jan Hartley
Featuring: Kerry Conte, Terry Donnelly, Ciaran Sheehan, Patrick Shields, Gary Troy, Kevin B. Winebold
Irish Repertory Theatre
122 W. 22nd St.
Closes September 5