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“The Irish and How They Got That Way” at Capital Rep blends song and storytelling

Image #3: Shown L-R- Lauren Wright, Patrick John Moran, Keven McGuire, Caroline Whelehan, Emily Mikesell, Josh D. Smith.
Doug Liebig
Image #3: Shown L-R- Lauren Wright, Patrick John Moran, Keven McGuire, Caroline Whelehan, Emily Mikesell, Josh D. Smith.

There’s a party going on at Capital Repertory Theatre downtown Albany.

On stage, it’s a party titled “The Irish and How They Got That Way.” Its intention is to celebrate all things Irish. And they do a bang-up job as the cast bonds in true ensemble fashion to sing, tell stories, and dance a bit. They even lift one now and then.

But there’s another celebration going on as well. It has to do with survival and resilience. This is a play that opened March 2020 and because of COVID closed after only five performances. Now it’s open again; the cast is the same. The only thing different is it’s in a new theater, which provides the cast and audience more space to appreciate the ambitious material. Oh, yeah, the audience is masked to remind us that times are still not normal.

“The Irish…” It is one of those performances that defies definition. There are some 40 songs in the work, and almost as much story-telling as there is music. There is no through-story line, and the actors lack identifying characters with which to relate with the audience. The form is almost random as it moves from song, to story-telling, to performing mostly awkward skits. The term revue comes closest to describing the experience.

There are moments of fun, as in the George M. Cohan medley of patriotic war songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Presented in the form of a vaudeville act, the grouping of familiar songs is light-hearted and energetic. And too, many of the obscure ballads and laments are achingly beautiful. There are also moments of touching insight as when the six performers tell tales of the potato famine and the building of the Erie Canal.

However, there are times when the overt sentimentality in the work is overbearing. A tribute to famous national and local leaders of Irish descent come close to pandering and the JFK tribute is too long. A nice idea is the sprinkle the work with some holiday songs that gives the piece a sense of being timely.

Something you should know about “The Irish and How They Got That Way” is that it was written by Frank McCourt. Though most people associate McCourt with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Angela’s Ashes,” he was also an English teacher in the New York City school district for almost 30 years. It soon becomes clear that McCourt’s goal in “The Irish…” is to both entertain and educate. You could call it a history lesson with music.

Though some moments are ponderous, most are touching and meaningful. Their purpose is to make you realize the hardships that caused massive emigration from Ireland. Today, the Irish have assimilated into American culture, but the stories of being treated harshly on arrival make you realize things haven’t changed – only the nationality of the immigrants is different.

A major flaw in the narrative sections is when McCourt tends to be bitter. Here the author gives way to excessive bouts of righteous indignation, especially against the English, that are not nearly as effective as is his use of irony in other segments. The joyous moments are celebratory, but frequently the happiness is muted by a segment that seems like a grudge rather than a story. Too McCord sees his characters as victims and at other times he permits them to be caricatures.

In the wrong hands these problems could make “The Irish…” a tedious night of theater. But at Capital Rep, these potential negatives serve to emphasize how good is the cast. More impressive is the direction of Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill who takes the unwieldy material and shapes it into a show that makes sense. She effectively hides many of the plays weaknesses and forms a coherent whole out of the material.

This is a true ensemble piece of theater. With perhaps the exception of Patrick John Moran’s lovely rendition of “Danny Boy,” and Lauren Wright’s rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” there are few individual moments that stay in your mind. The pleasures are cumulative. Kevin McGuire’s dramatic readings of several letters describing the problems that seemed to plague the Irish were beautiful, touching and funny. He is also a charming corpse and plays a mean set of spoons.

Emily Mikesell is impressive throughout, as sings with authority and plays an astounding number of musical instruments - all well. Wright is a musical presence as she and her vibrant fiddle are everywhere. She’s a bundle of energy and cuteness as the ingénue of the piece. Caroline Whelehan contributes in several broad skits and sets the tone of the piece opening the show with a sentimental rendering of “Rose of Tralee.”.

It is easy to underestimate the value of Josh D. Smith as he is not constantly performing with the ensemble. When he is part of the group, he adds a needed sense of comic self-deprecation. However, his most important contributions come from his perch at the piano as the show’s musical director.

“The Irish and How They Got That Way” is a show that offers both fun and enlightenment at a time when both are needed. It plays at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through December 19. Schedule , tickets and COVID protocol information is available at 518-445-7469 or capitalrep.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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