The musical revue “The Irish..and How They Got That Way”, now being presented at the intimate downstairs Davis Square Theater in Somerville, begins rather unpromisingly with a medley of a half dozen Irish songs, most very familiar, though quite well sung, threatening to be another one of those dreadfully dull “juke box” almost plot-less (and often lifeless) musicals. Ah, but that’s where the magic of the late playwright Frank McCourt (also author of “Angela’s Ashes”) comes in. Before we even realize it, the songs have become integral parts of a moving tapestry that traces the historical pathways of the Irish on both sides of the pond. What first seemed to be yet another of those ubiquitous ethnic celebrations that inevitably appear every Saint Patrick’s Day, instead evolved into a tightly constructed and focused presentation of how the Irish “got that way”, and, along the way, how the English “got that way” as well.
Directed by Danielle Paccione, who helmed this work in Philadelphia in 2001, this production consists of that entire company, including Meredith Beck, Andrew Crowe, Jon Dykstra, Gregg Hammer, Janice Landry and Irene Molloy. The company as a whole, as well as in individual solos, duets, and every other conceivable combination and permutation, thus seems perfectly comfortable with their roles, requiring all of them to sing, act, dance and play a variety of musical instruments, (often simultaneously), including an introduction on the piano (by Dykstra, who is also credited with Musical Direction), flute (Beck), violin (Crowe), and assorted percussion instruments (Hammer) as well as guitars, mandolin, and even a dulcimer (Molloy). The songs chosen to illustrate the history of a people range from old chestnuts like “Danny Boy” (Hammer, in a beautifully acted rendition dramatically lit by Lighting Designer Matthew Breton, portraying the aching homesickness for the Ireland so many had to leave behind), to the less familiar “Carrick Fergus” (Beck) and “Fields of Athenry” (Landry), to the surprising conclusion of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which speaks for itself. Even the predicable Cohan medley (“Give My Regards to B’way”, “Over There”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”) seems reinvented here, aided by the excellent choreography by local artist Sebastian Goldberg.
McCourt has blended song and story so seamlessly and poetically that we feel by the end of the show that we’ve gained new insight into the Irish culture and history, their music and their humor. (For example, “The English conquered the world to escape their own cooking”, or the old lady when asked whether she believed in fairies: “I do not...but they’re there.”) There are also frequent allusions to the troubles and persecutions the Irish endured, including a quote from the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot, about the potato famine (a misnomer, as McCourt points out, since a great deal of food was produced during the period, but exported to the then Mother Country), and the early days of their emigration to the States, with their welcoming “No Irish Need Apply”. As McCourt quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart”. In the meantime, whether you’re Irish or not, this wondrous production will break your heart as it makes your spirits soar.