How inspired of Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill to choose this show for the last offering at theREP’s current digs. “The Irish … and How They Got That Way” is a kind of meta-wake, a celebration in the theater that is itself the soon-to-be-deceased.
And in keeping with the Irish wake tradition, the evening is a poignant romp — a lifted glass, a drained glass, a refilled glass, a glass stared into. Early in this musical revue, REP Associate Artist Kevin McGuire says, “We [the Irish] chase the dream that is coming and the one that is dying.”
A company of six performers, all of whom sing, act, play an instrument, and do a little high stepping (choreography by Freddy Ramirez), carry us genially through the history of the Irish in the old country, at the mercy of the snooty English; and in the new country, at the mercy of nearly everyone else: “Irish need not apply.”
The cast shifts seamlessly from one scene and emotion to the next as they deliver standards — “Rose of Tralee,” “Galway Boy,” “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” for example — to begin the show and then segue into numbers that tell Irish history or reveal the Irish character.
The set? Ye Olde Rep Poet and Tap Room! Brian Prather has fashioned a bar (which, before the curtain and at intermission, patrons can frequent and whose potables they — er, we — can take back to our seats), a saloon cleverly adorned with memorabilia from theREP’S previous seasons. The onstage band includes music director Josh D. Smith, Doug T. Esmond and Harry Lumb, but Smith frequently comes out from behind the keyboards to join McGuire, Emily Mikesell, Patrick John Moran, Caroline Whelehan, and Lauren Wright in the scenes.
With the aid of dialect coach David M. Girard and under Mancinelli-Cahill’s pitch-perfect direction, the cast brilliantly negotiates the pathos and the humor in Frank McCourt’s script. Some of the story is familiar — the famine, Tammany Hall, JFK, who is memorialized in a rear-wall video projection by Nathan W. Scheuer — but some of it was new to me, like the Irish in the Civil War.
Irish tropes? Ah, faith and begorrah. A few Bridget jokes have the ring of contemporary blond jokes. Booze abounds. Family is first. Ghosts. Storytelling. Longing. McCourt gives us what we might expect, and it’s OK.
You’ll have your favorite moments, of course, and here are a few of mine: after the opening medley, McGuire rousingly leads the company in “Mrs. McGrath.”
Wright is a fabulous violinist, weaving her way in and out of numbers, but her vocals on “The Fields of Athenry” are astonishing.
Whelehan is the dependable swing, appearing as needed as singer, raconteuse, and dancer, and she’s a delight throughout.
Smith is a vocal standout in Act II with “Paddy in the Railway” and “Moonshine.”
Moran’s mugging and eye-rolling aptly punctuate every scene he’s in, but it’s the lilt of his Irish tenor you’ll remember: his “Danny Boy” is the ne plus ultra.
About Mikesell: she plays the violin. Need a bassist? Who can pick the mandolin? Oh, and she tells a good yarn and sings splendidly.
The production comes to an inspiring conclusion with the Irish band U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
‘The Irish … and How They Got That Way’
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through Apr. 5
HOW MUCH: $67.50-$25
MORE INFO: 518-445-7469, or capitalrep.org