Duo’s Irish musical finds its way home to Albany

Story written by natives unfolds in 1910 Ireland and America
Jimmy Kelly and Jeff Strange, co-writers of "Find Your Way Home."
Jimmy Kelly and Jeff Strange, co-writers of "Find Your Way Home."

Categories: Entertainment

ALBANY — An Irish musical will be getting back to its roots on Monday at the Palace Theatre.
“Find Your Way Home,” was co-written by Jimmy Kelly and Jeff Strange, two Albany natives who started working on the production years ago in Kelly’s kitchen.

Kelly, a former “Riverdance” cast member, songwriter and musician who plays around 200 shows each year, wasn’t sure what he was in for at first when Strange proposed the idea. But as soon as he heard Strange was working on an Irish musical, he was interested. 

The paired worked together for several years, writing the music and the book of an Irish family going through financial struggles and meeting unexpected tragedies.

Late last year, Kelly and Strange debuted the musical  in Ireland with Alexandria Sharpe, a former Celtic Woman singer, director Christine Scarry, and music director David Hayes, who has directed “The Voice Ireland,” and “Riverdance.”

Here, Kelly takes a few moments to talk with The Gazette about the journey of “Find Your Way Home” from kitchen table to Dublin to the Palace Theatre. 

Question: Did you grow up right in Albany or outside of it?

Answer: I grew up in Albany. I went to CBA, then to Hudson Valley and then Saint Rose.

Q: What did you graduate with from Saint Rose?

A: Liberal arts. I started out as elementary education, but about a year in I started playing music professionally. It really kicked in .. . . [We] were doing over 200 gigs a year. I’d be playing around on guitar and got some solo gigs. I had my home band for a while. We’ve played Alive at Five, Troy Music Hall, things like that. Then I moved to Nashville for eight years to write songs.I guess that was 1997. I was a broke songwriter, I was working part time and going to writers nights almost every day with five bucks in my pocket, a business card and a cassette of two original songs.

You could hear some of the world’s greatest songwriters on a Sunday at the Bluebird Cafe for free. I’d be there every Sunday with a notebook taking notes. In the last few years, I started writing with Pat Alger, who is in the music hall of fame. From that, other doors opened and I started writing with maybe six or seven people that have landed number one hits. So I was able to come back to New York and go down to Nashville every six weeks to write.

Q: How did the show [“Find Your Way Home”] come together? I know you’ve been working on it for a long time.

A: Just about eight years. Jeff Strange had the idea. We knew of each other over the years, but musicians usually know of each other, but they don’t get to know each other because they’re always working. I ended up producing one of his albums. Then, he was managing an Irish restaurant and I would play during the week when I was in town. And I’d be playing original music and he really liked it. [One day] he called me and said: “Can I run an idea by you?” I said “Sure.” So he came over to my kitchen and started telling me about it and instantly it was a yes. This became my calling. Everything about it felt right. We spent three years writing just about six days a week six or seven hours a day. Just pacing around my kitchen island, I mean the floor is worn out like a race track. It was an absolute labor of love.

Q: What is the story?

A: It’s an economic hardship story about a family. Martin McHenry is doing everything he can to keep his wife’s dying wish of keeping the family together no matter what. When she passed, the writing was on the wall, but there was still hope in the town. The mill is the main staple of the economy of the town when we start the story, but they’re cutting shifts. It’s the dynamic of the family and there’s the mill workers, there’s a lot of layers to it. It’s set in 1910 in Ireland and in America. We’ve run this by historians. Every word has been gone over and polished for accuracy. 

Q: Why in 1910?

A: It’s post-famine and pre-uprising. He [Strange] was drawn to that. 

Q: What has drawn you to Celtic music and to writing the musical?

A: How much time do you have? I grew up surrounded by Irish traditional musicians. I had a wonderful childhood of hearing touring Irish musicians in my kitchen. My father had a band Jimmy Kelly and The Galway Blazers. I spent my childhood playing the spoons listening to big music. My mother had an Irish step-dancing school and played the violin. We were a host house for touring musicians of Ireland. I learned guitar by watching Irish musicians in my kitchen. 

Q: Are you in the pit for “Find Your Way Home”?

A: I’m in the pit and we have a five-piece band. It’s amazing. We have a piper, a violin, drums and percussion. We have David Hayes, our musical director. We’ve been working with David Hayes for a couple of years. [We met when] I was in Ireland promoting a record and I met with a record executive. He took three copies of my CD and while we were sitting waiting for my train, I went to close my iTunes. I had the one-page synopsis up of the musical on my screen and he read it. I played him a song and right there he got out his phone and called David Hayes, one of the biggest musical directors in Ireland. David met me at midnight that night and we went through the songs until 3 in the morning. He said he gets pitched these things all the time and this is the next big thing.

Q: Is this a surreal experience? I mean, it all started out in your kitchen in Albany and now you’ve shown it in Ireland and soon at the Palace.

A: I know. It’s crazy! The Palace has been so supportive. We’re in partnership with the Irish American Heritage Museum. They’ve made this possible and Hope House Ministries has been such a big help. But it’s been absolutely incredible. It’s been so busy that I rarely get a chance to really take it [in]. I’m smelling the roses the whole time but the pace of the past couple of weeks . . . surreal is the word. In the best possible way. We believe in it so strongly. We are bursting with excitement to see this and to bring it to Albany, where it all started. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the cast members and for the audience. 

Q: What was it like to see the piece come to life for the first time in Ireland?

A: I met the director as we were walking in the building and I met the actors shortly after. So it was pretty intense. But within a half an hour, we were running the chorus of one of the newer songs called “Going off to Americae” and it was incredible; it automatically put me at ease. 

Q: And you’re showing it in New York and Boston as well. How did those two shows come together?

A: I did a lot of research. Symphony Space is a beautiful theater and there’s a lot of Irish [performances] that go on there. Then we have a lot of support in Boston and it just felt right. New York and Boston, what’s more Irish?

‘Find Your Way Home: An Irish Musical’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 17
WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
TICKETS: $25-$125

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