By Terence Clarey
There is a line in the song Body of an American by the Irish punk-folk group The Pogues describing attendees at the wake of an Irish-American that goes, “There were uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history.”
That thought came to mind while viewing a performance of the late Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt’s musical The Irish and How they got that Way at the Davis Square Theater.
Although McCourt does not go into “ancient” Irish history, he does begin with a summary of Ireland’s tortured relations with Britain, through the horrors of the Potato Famine, the subsequent exodus to the shores of ‘Amerikay” and the turbulent assimilation of Irish Catholics into Protestant America.
He weaves this history into a musical tapestry that begins with early Irish folk songs and ends in a stirring rendition of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. He also slips in a mini-tribute to Irish American composer George M. Cohan along the way.
If this musical play had been written by anyone other than someone like McCourt it might be seen as a stale recital of the stereotype of the Irish as potato-eating, whiskey-drinking, fighting hooligans. But with his bona fides, McCourt presents a show in which patrons can laugh at the humor and feel the misery that has typified the Irish-American experience.
This production, directed by Danielle Paccione and produced by Howard Perloff, reunited a cast of performers who first put on the show in 2010 at the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia and decided to bring it to Boston this year. The play started slowly but built to climaxes at the end of the first and second acts which had audience members singing and clapping along with the performers. Singing along is highly encouraged, especially with the more well known rollicking tunes.
The cast consists of very talented singers, performers and musicians anchored by musical director Jon Dykstra at the piano. Andrew Crowe sang and seemed to play almost every instrument on stage, and Irene Molloy had the look of an Irish singer songwriter and voice to match.
Meredith Beck, who opened the show with an Irish step dancing routine, and who is also a dead ringer for a younger Kate Hudson, moved fluidly from her flute to the singing parts.
Janice Landry, a fiery redhead, was the most forceful voice in the group, and Gregg Hammer took on the role of comedic relief as he held down his own with a solo performance of Oh Danny Boy.
At times the performers seemed restrained, which could have been a result of the small space of the theater, but they and the audience seemed to get more comfortable as the show progressed.
If you want to learn some Irish history told in words and song, or if you want to hear the old ditties to remind you of your own Irish immigrant experience, then by all means get started on St Patrick’s Day a bit early.
The Irish and How They Got That Way, by Frank McCourt runs through March 17 at the Davis Square Theater, 255 Elm St., Somerville. Performances are Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday Matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $39-$42 and are available by calling 800-660-8462 or online at www.frankmccourtstheirish.com. Group discounts are available by calling (215) 297-8540.