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SALUTING THE IRISH EXPERIENCE

By Bob Donovan, Special to the BIR, special to the BIR, January 7, 2013

Frank McCourt’s ‘The Irish And How They Got That Way’ Opens Jan. 24 at Davis Square
by R J Donovan
Special to the BIR

Frank McCourt, born in Brooklyn and raised in Limerick, will forever be known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angela’s Ashes.” What may not be as well known is that he also wrote the musical revue “The Irish And  How They Got That Way,”  which premiered at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 1997.  Recounting the tumultuous history of the Irish experience, both on the Emerald Isle and here in America, the evening is a colorful tapestry of music and dance with a healthy dose of irreverent humor added.  The musical numbers include:  “Galway Bay,” “The Rose of Tralee,” “Finnegan’s Wake,” “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?,” “Harrigan,” “No Irish Need Apply,” “Skibbereen,” and others.

For the production playing Davis Square Theatre in Somerville from January 24 to March 17, producers have reunited the lively six-member cast from the well-received revised production that played Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.  Featured is Gregg Hammer.  In singing his praises, reviewers said Hammer was “a standout” . . .  “the type of guy everyone wants to sit next to at the bar while drinking a pint,” adding that he delivered “an impressive rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ that is surely one the highlights of the entire show.”

Raised in California, Gregg traces his own family roots back to Cork.  The actor-composer was seen in the national company of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and has appeared in regional productions of  “Les Miserables,” “City of Angels”  and “The Fantasticks,”  among others.

From his home in New York, he spoke by phone recently about bringing “The Irish And  How They Got That Way” to Boston.  Here’s an edited look at our conversation.

BIR:  What is it that makes audiences embrace this show the way they do?
GH:  First off, it’s written by Frank McCourt.  We’re telling the story of the history of the Irish and we basically sing all the folk songs that you know and love . . . We get to be dozens of characters, each of us . . . The music takes it to another level.  What makes it special, I think, that is that the audience knows these songs and it brings back a lot of memories.

BIR:  And you get to sing “Danny Boy.”
GH:  I get to sing “Danny Boy”. . . And there are times, more often than not, I’ll see grown men weeping in the audience.  It’s very touching.

BIR: In addition to the lighter side, McCourt also tells of the hostilities and hatred the Irish have endured over time.
GH: Yeah, that was something that I knew somewhat about, but learned more, and researched more, once I got in the show.  It really surprised me.  African Americans were protesting to have their own cemeteries because they didn’t want to buried next to Irish people.  It’s just incredible that this country has [seen)]that [kind of discrimination] with every new group that’s come in.  For the Irish, it took the Civil War for them to really prove themselves – what great soldiers they were for their country.  They were accepted after that for the most part.

BIR:  Tell me how you got your start as an actor.
GH:  I’m the youngest of four boys and we’re kind of a sports family, but we also grew up on music.  My Dad loved Irish music . . . I went to Cal State Fullerton for musical theater – it’s one of the bigger musical theater schools on the West Coast – and just decided that’s really what I wanted to do with my life.  And so I moved out to New York and have been working around ever since.

BIR:  Do you have a memory of your first time on stage?
GH:  My first time on stage, geeze, probably fourth grade in elementary school.  I only did it because my brother did it and I thought it was cool and did everything that he did.  I’m sure that annoyed him.  I ended up doing it and was a big hit [laughing] . . . As the youngest, I liked the attention and that was one way to get it.

BIR:  I hear you’ve entertained on a lot of cruise ships.
GH:  I just finished working on a cruise. We were in Ireland quite a bit.  I had been to Ireland once before with my family.  This time, going into the pubs and listening to the older men sing songs and tell stories was my absolute favorite part of the whole cruise experience.

BIR:  How long were you away and how many stops did you make.
GH: I went on this cruise because I was going to see the world – 48 different countries. I was on it for nine months. That was about five months too long [laughing] . . . It’s really a great way to save money for an actor.  You get free room and board, plus they’re paying you and you get to travel and see the world.  It’s not something I would probably do if I had a family, so it was wonderful time to do it.

BIR:  So to circle back to “The Irish And How They Got That Way,” is there a particular moment in the show that has special meaning for you?
GH:  There are tons of them.  We talked about “Danny Boy” – that’s an obvious one.  But there’s a song called “Rare Old Times” and it’s talking about how the streets of Dublin are becoming pavement now and you can’t ever go back from that.   I’ve got this speech right before the song and its a really poignant moment where I talk about technology coming and things getting bigger, but you can’t lose sight of what it was and what’s been there before –  the history. That really gets me every night.

R. J. Donovan is publisher of onStageBoston.com.
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“The Irish And How They Got That Way,”  anuary 24 - March 17, Davis Square Theatre, 255 Elm Street, Somerville.  Tickets: 800-660-8462 or frankmccourtstheirish.com.

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