“We are all Irish. Everyone loves the free, spirited, easy come-easy go air of the Irish, and this show makes everyone want to be Irish all the time – not just on St. Patrick’s Day.” There is a twinkle in his eye, as Maine State Music Theatre’s Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, utters those words. Immediately his sentiments are seconded by the show’s director/choreographer, Marc Robin, and Portland Stage’s Artistic Director, Anita Stewart, all three of whom will be joining forces to create Frank McCourt’s play with music, The Irish and How They Got That Way, from August 16- September 4, 2016, at Portland Stage.
Though McCourt’s 1996 play may be unfamiliar to Maine audiences, there is already quite a buzz in the theatre community about the co-production between two of the region’s leading companies, which will bring together a talented cast and creative team to do justice to Pulitzer prize-winning McCourt’s uplifting and exhilarating work.
“The history and depth of storytelling in the piece is extraordinary,” enthuses Robin. “It recounts the journey of not just one character, but of an entire population, and it has one of the most glorious scores with incredible songs that you will ever hear!”
Stewart concurs, adding that McCourt has constructed a series of “brilliant, heartfelt stories, threaded together by Irish history that will take the audience along on an amazing ride. This is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with MSMT,” she says, and speaking for her company, Portland Stage, she adds “We are really very good at taking meaty material and making it interesting so that it entertains you as well.”
Asked to pinpoint the qualities which all three feel illuminate McCourt’s play, the replies focus on not only the narrative quality of the work, but also on the beautifully balanced blend of laughter and sorrow, as well as the soaring music. Clark, who has done two previous productions of the piece as an actor, explains: “It‘s amazing how every audience ends up loving this play. On paper, the history aspect may not look that exciting, but when you add the emotion, the identification of the actors and ultimately the audience and the music, it becomes irresistible,” he says citing one fan of the show who had seen the Chicago production forty-five times! “And while there is longing and sadness in it, there are moments that are side-splittingly funny,” he notes giving the example of the “Finnegan’s Wake” scene. “It will leave you incredibly uplifted.”
Robin, who mounted his own first production at the Fulton Theatre in 2006, agrees. “It is a terribly funny play and the humor insures that the play will not seem like a history lesson. I also think it is very cleverly constructed so that it doesn’t feel like a roller coaster in its mood shifts from laughter to longing.” One of the devices that helps these transitions, he believes, is the use of video which smoothes the “play’s transportation from pathos to laughter.”
“There is an excellent balance,” Stewart remarks. “There are some beautiful stories that will make you cry, but a great deal that will make you laugh or amaze you with something you didn’t know before. The play doesn’t sit in any one mode for too long; it continues to move, surprise, and delight you.”
While The Irish and How They Got That Way may be new to Mainers, Frank McCourt’s work is surely not. The Brooklyn-born Irish-American author won wide acclaim for his 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The Irish followed closely on the heels of that success with its first performances directed by Charlotte Moore at off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre in 1997. Chicago’s Mercury Theater became the second production to open, followed by one in Boston and then several regional revivals. In each case the show, which had begun as a sleeper in New York before catching fire, was slated for a limited engagement and ended by extending the run. In Chicago’s Mercury Theater in 1999, with the entire New York team and Moore again as director, the play ran for a year-and-a-half until the house had to close it to keep other commitments. It was in this production that Curt Dale Clark first appeared in the role Portland audiences will see him reprise – that of the “Danny Boy” tenor.
Clark recalls how he introduced his husband and longtime artistic collaborator, Marc Robin to Charlotte Moore. “I was messing around one day in rehearsal with a little tap for the George M. Cohan number, and Charlotte said to me, ‘Go ahead. Do something like that.’ I told her I wasn’t a choreographer, but Marc was. She replied that she had no extra money, and I volunteered to ask Marc. He came and created a little tap section. She loved it, and so it has stayed with the show ever since.”
Robin recalls how that was his first introduction to the play and to Moore. Some seven years later then-Artistic Director of the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA (now Robin’s artistic home base), Michael Mitchell proposed that Robin direct and choreograph a production for his theatre. Both Robin and Clark jumped at the chance to reprise the work. Asked how his Fulton run and now this MSMT-Portland Stage collaboration will have evolved from his first encounter with the show in Chicago, Robin replies: “I had a great many fascinating conversations with Charlotte in Chicago which helped inform my own interpretation. Her production was a bit abstract, taking place in a non-environmental set – just a performance space and some video. For me I felt it needed an anchor. I wanted my audience to know where and why they were there, so I set it in an enormous New York Irish pub that had a rustic old-world quality. My concept was to stage it as a group of friends sitting around after the bar closed with the musicians still there [on set], telling stories, drinking – a kind of Cheers feeling. We are going to do it in the same way this time as well, because it works. You walk into the performance space (especially an intimate 286 seat house like Portland Stage) and you feel as if you have stopped into your favorite pub; you listen to tales and music that are both familiar and new. The audience becomes part of the narrative, as they listen and identify with their own stories.”
No small part of the appeal of The Irish is the music – tunes ranging from traditional Celtic melodies to the brassy boisterousness of George M. Cohan to the contemporary sounds of U-2. Using a fiddler, bass, drums, and piano in arrangement by Rusty Magee, the onstage musicians join the four principal singing-actors who play a diverse range of roles. Perhaps none is more fortunate than Clark, who gets the opportunity to sing the timeless classic “Danny Boy.” Asked what accounts for the perennial hold this haunting melody has on audiences, Clark replies, “It’s a visceral song. It is deeply emotional, and it gives you the permission to mourn those that you’ve lost. It was written from the heart; it speaks to the heart, and everybody feels it. There is something so real there.” Clark, who received countless glowing reviews in Chicago and Lancaster for his rendition, says for him it is impossible NOT to sing the song from his heart: ”In ‘Danny Boy’ there is a part of my soul that I need to exercise, and it shows in my voice.” And that quality of mournful emotion, of tears so near the surface is surely a measure of what makes the song impossible to resist. The Fulton’s late Michael Mitchell credited “Danny Boy” with the success of the show, and loved it so much he would step from his office to listen to Clark singing it onstage at every opportunity, so it was a fitting and touching tribute that the actor sang it to honor his and Robin’s friend at Mitchell’s funeral in 1999.
But, Clark continues, “Danny Boy” is not the only powerful moment in the show,” he says, noting some of his other favorites like “Endearing Young Charms, “Rare Old Times,” or Skibbereen.” There are so many songs – sentimental, sad, hilarious, bawdy – the audience will take away with them. He recalls how in his peripheral vision in the intimate theatres in which he has played the role, his eye would catch individual audience members gasping, smiling, laughing – identifying with the melodies. “The Irish don’t get enough credit for all the art they have created in the world. Their music is at the root of so many other musical traditions from English art song to American folk tunes and musical theatre.”
Another factor that contributes to the appeal of the work is the quasi-improvisational style in which Robin will allow his actors to work, made possible by the fact that this tight-knit ensemble is comprised of artists (Curt Dale Clark, Charis Leos, Cary Michele Miller, and Peter Cormican) who have worked frequently together before and have a special chemistry. “In any piece you are typically trying to find what the chemistry is,” adds Stewart. “ In this play, we have a group of artists and characters who are sharing a story they love and know, who are comfortable in their own skins and in working together. So their love gets transmitted across the footlights. The actors embrace their audience and invite them to come into this pub and participate in spinning the yarns.”
Besides a cast with great rapport, MSMT-Portland Stage has assembled an entire creative team who has close ensemble ties. Ed Reichert, who has served as Music Director at both MSMT and Portland Stage in the past, will take the musical reigns again. Kathleen S. Brown and Greg Carville, familiar faces at Portland Stage, will handle costumes and lighting respectively. And Anita Stewart, who frequently creates Portland Stage’s stunning sets, is designing the décor.
Showing me the rough white model for her concept, she says, “I looked at many Irish pubs for inspiration, and I also tried to marry the projection images with what was happening on stage.” What she has created gives a sense of open space and permits flexible movement. The instrumentalists are on stage; there are several levels to enliven the staging and choreography, and some basic tables and chairs which can be reconfigured.
So with Portland Stage’s 2015-2016 season just coming to a close and MSMT’s 2016 summer season about to begin, the two companies are looking forward to realizing this new collaboration. “This has been a very smooth process,” says Clark, “and it helps when leadership is behind the effort.”
Stewart concurs, saying that for Portland Stage, the exchange has been a stimulating learning experience. “In a state the size of Maine, sometimes theatres sidle off and do their own things without ever getting together to think and talk. Some things we do in a similar fashion and some incredibly differently, so this has been a great process.” Asked to elaborate, she cites the example of the creation of a different rehearsal model that accommodates both companies – one week at MSMT, one week in Portland, followed by tech and three previews.
“That schedule is incredibly tight,” Clark adds, but he and Robin both say they know “It is doable.” Clark feels that choosing a play that so many of the artists have some history with will help to insure success, and both he and Stewart are eager for this additional venture to prove successful and have a future life.
“Hopefully, we will exceed all expectations; people will come and have a good time and be raring to go for our collaboration next year,” she affirms.
Clark feels sure they will. “I want the audience to realize that MSMT can create the same high quality wherever we perform, and I know this will be especially easy because we are combining with another theatre company that has a great reputation like Portland Stage. Even though some people will come not sure what to expect, I know that, just as The Irish has succeeded everywhere else it has played, the audience will leave educated, entertained, and enthusiastic.”
Robin says that when he mounts a revival, he always reviews his previous productions to see what works and what doesn’t, makes any adjustments, and then tailors his direction to the cast he is working with so that “I become a master editor. I take these artists and discover how they can tell their stories in their own way.” Yet, despite his connection to McCourt’s play, there is an element of surprise even for this veteran director because, despite his extensive work on the national theatre scene, he has yet to create a piece for Portland. Robin is thrilled at the prospective of a new audience – “one who doesn’t know my work and has no particular expectations. I hope they walk away pleased and surprised. I want them to say ‘Wow, I didn’t know this play or this history or some of this music, but I am leaving feeling totally connected to the experience of the show.’ I want them to be surprised by what a great trip The Irish is!”
Stewart feels The Irish and How They Got That Way is a good fit for Portland Stage’s coming season and a work with universal appeal “that speaks to the immigrant narrative we are living right now in Technicolor! The Irish are the quintessential immigrant population. They were the first wave of people who came and were identified as ‘other.’ But then America fell in love with Irish music, stories, beer. Culturally, there is a little bit of Irish in all of us.”
Robin adds to the thought: “Though I am Jewish, not Irish, and the story and music are not my cultural heritage, by the time the play is over, I feel completely connected. Not only does the The Irish offer a rollicking good time, but the music is such a glorious song book – a fantastic celebration.”
“We all see a reflection of ourselves in the Irish immigrant experience,” Clark continues. The United States is a huge melting pot that has boiled down to the point where we all share similar yearnings to do better, to make our dreams a reality. When the cast finishes the show with “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For,” everyone on stage and in the house feels that longing, that hope that reaches into the future.”
The Irish and How They Got That Way is a joint production of Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage and will run from August 16 – September 4, 2016 at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME. Subscriber discount tickets are available until June 15th. For these and all other tickets visit www.portlandstage.org or call 207-774-0465. For information visit Portland Stage’s website or http://www.msmt.org.