Dark History Lesson Runs Beneath McCourt’s Lively ‘The Irish’ (Four Stars)

Frank McCourt’s “The Irish and How They Got That Way”. Book by Frank McCourt; Directed by Danielle Paccione Colombo; Choreography by Sebastian Goldberg; Musical Direction by Jon Dykstra; At the Davis Square Theatre, 255 Elm Street, Somerville. Performances Thursday & Friday evenings at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 4pm & 7:30pm; and Sunday matinees at 3pm; Through March 17th.

Anyone who utters the phrase “the Luck of the Irish” might want to take a closer look at history and reconsider using it again, as the Davis Square Theater’s production of Frank McCourt’s “The Irish and How They Got That Way” clearly demonstrates. For all the cute leprechauns and amusing anecdotes about excessive drinking that we associate with the Emerald Isle, there is also a rich vein of melancholy running through the saga of the Irish over the last few centuries, particularly the period that preceded when they came across the pond to America though the beginning of the twentieth century. Which is not to say that this show is in any way a downer. Quite the contrary, the six person (three men and three women) cast rips through a bevy of Irish tunes both familiar and obscure while generating both smiles and tears.

Those who believe that Irish songs can be separated into two categories – ones that make you cry and drinking songs – might have their eyes and ears opened through the wide range of not only the ballads and playful boozing songs that the talented cast offers, but the music of the labor movement, Broadway and a little Rock ‘n Roll. The show opens with the familiar ballad “Rose of Tralee” and continues with a medley of mostly familiar Irish tunes like “If You Ever Go Across the Sea to Ireland” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” before the mood begins to turn a little darker and the history lesson begins, starting with the Great Potato Famine – where more than 1.5 million people starved to death. Sadder still, it didn’t have to be that way, as other crops such as wheat and oats as well as beef, mutton, pork and poultry were in plentiful supply, but these were shipped abroad by the English landowners for profit, while the Irish poor starved. Which spawned songs like “Fields of Athenry” and “Skibberdeen” that detailed the horrible situation; and “Anchors Aweigh” (not the Navy tune) and “Shores of Amerikay” about the Irish leaving their homeland for the U.S.

Once here, the Irish aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, as songs like “No Irish Need Apply” and “Irish Washerwoman” sadly attest. Through newspaper accounts read by the cast, we see that the Irish are held in lower esteem than wild animals, at least until they begin building the infrastructure of the country by building waterways (“Erie Canal”) and railroads. The show also addresses their legendary proclivity to alcoholism that is worsened by their extreme poverty and living conditions (“Moonshine”, “Finnegan’s Wake”, and of course, a beautiful rendition of “Danny Boy”). The show also presents the Irish contributions to the labor movement with songs like the “The Ghost of Molly Maguire”.

The cast also provides a nice vignette featuring the works of George M. Cohan, including “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “You’re A Grand Ole Flag” and “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy”, before closing the show with a tune from modern-day Irish rockers U2.

The book was written by Irish-American author Frank McCourt, who wrote the best-selling novels, “Angela’s Ashes: “Tis” and “Teacher Man”, and his acerbic wit cuts through even the most dire of the history lessons. The choreography features some step dancing as well as a few clever numbers, and the cast’ singing and dancing and dancing are solid. According to the theater’s website, this production reunites the cast from the 2010 Kimmel Center production in Philadelphia, including: Gregg Hammer, Janice Landry, Jon Dykstra, Meredith Beck, Andrew Crowe and the perfectly named Irene Molloy. The cast looks like they were pulled out of Irish Central Casting, particularly the lasses. You don’t need to be Irish or even like Irish music to thoroughly enjoy this part history lesson/part Irish music celebration, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.