The atmosphere is always lively at “A Little Bit of Ireland,” Reagle Music Theatre’s annual celebration of Irish music, dance and lighthearted comedy. This year’s 15th edition takes place March 15 - 17 at Robinson Theatre in Waltham.
Featured among those returning to the company will be: World Champion Irish Step Dancer Liam Harney (star of the London production of “Riverdance”) along with a troupe from the Harney Academy of Irish Step-Dancing in Walpole; harpist Judith Ross, leading The Massachusetts Harp Ensemble of more than a dozen pedal harp players ranging in age from seven to 70; and Comhaltas, this year led by Gaelic fiddler Sean Clohessy, the recipient of multiple All-Ireland titles.
Broadway’s Sarah Pfisterer (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Showboat”), who’s become a beloved part of the Reagle family over the past few years, will appear as featured soloist. The company will be rounded out by Reagle favorite Harold “Jerry” Walker, delivering his impish brand of comedy, plus a sizable company of singers, dancers and musicians.
This year’s show will carry a bittersweet touch due to the absence of world-renowned Celtic fiddler Larry Reynolds. Larry not only performed in every “Little Bit of Ireland” show since the beginning, but helped Bob Eagle, Reagle’s Producing Artistic Director, pull the first show together.
In tribute, this year’s production will be dedicated to Larry, who died last October at the age of 80. At the Opening Night performance, Larry will be presented posthumously with the Golden Eagle Award, which has only been given once before.
Larry’s wife Phyllis and their children will attend to accept the award. As well, a host of Larry’s friends and fellow musicians will present personal songs and stories in Larry’s memory during a special section of the Friday performance.
Born in Ahascragh, Larry arrived in Boston in 1953. He earned his living as a master carpenter, but it was his dedication to sharing his love of Irish music that was the center of his being. A favorite of everyone from Tip O’Neill to Ireland’s President Mary Robinson, Larry played an integral role in popularizing Irish music in Boston and throughout New England. Among his many achievements, in 1975 he helped form the Boston chapter of the Irish cultural organization Comhaltas, and in 2006, he was named one of the Top 100 Irish Americans by Irish America magazine.
Remembering the inception of “A Little Bit of Ireland,” Bob Eagle said the idea came about partly by necessity. While Reagle’s summer musicals have always been popular with critics and audiences alike, Bob was looking for a way to present performances during the fall and winter months to help keep the company fiscally sound.
At the time, the “Riverdance” storm was sweeping the country. When the show’s national tour arrived in Boston, it playing to packed houses. “That kind of motivated me,” Bob said. “I used to sit around at parties and family would get up and do step dancing. But nothing like (‘Riverdance’).”
He decided he’d take advantage of the renewed enthusiasm for Irish entertainment by creating an Irish revue for Reagle. One of his first calls was to Larry Reynolds, whom he’d known for years.
As a result of that friendship, Bob witnessed a traditional Irish session. “One night I went with Larry to the Green Briar in Brighton, and was so struck by the experience,” he said. “There were people walking in, not even acknowledging one another necessarily, and a musical number would have started. And they’d just opened their case, get out their instrument and start playing . . . I thought that was very, very special.”
Bob is especially pleased that Larry’s son, Larry, Jr., who has toured for years playing the accordion with Noel Henry’s Irish Band, will be taking his father’s spot in the orchestra pit this year.
Accordionist Tara Lynch, who has been a member of Comhaltas in three countries, four branches, and who currently serves as chairwoman of the Boston chapter, worked closely with Larry through the years. She recalled their first meeting after she relocated to Boston. “I was playing Irish music in New Jersey and when I was leaving to come up here, they said, ‘You need to make sure you get ahold of Larry Reynolds.’”
She arrived in town on a fall weekend, unpacked and headed off to a session in Watertown where she was instantly welcomed into Larry’s circle of family and friends. “I’ve traveled a lot and lived in different countries,” she said, “but to walk into a place full of people dancing, playing music, having a great time, and immediately everyone just pulls you in and makes you feel like family. I’d never come across it, and they’re still that way. Larry set the tone for that.”
The following March, Larry invited her to join the company of “A Little Bit of Ireland.” “I was introduced to Larry through music,” she said, “but was lucky enough that he became a close personal friend outside of music. And that was one of the special elements related to Larry. Your level of musicianship might be the way you were introduced to Larry, but he really got into how you were as a person – as a human being. That was a priority. If you happened to play or sing or dance, wonderful, but he always kept that up front in the relationships he had with people. It was the person.”
“Through his personality and being a musician and working as a carpenter, he got to know everyone,” she said. “If you ever wanted to do something –’How do I do this Larry,’ or ‘Who would I go to for that” – he was a tremendous enabler. Quietly so. ‘I’ll put you in touch with so and so’ and then he’d step out and let you do your thing. That’s hard to find in any community. He crossed a lot of boundaries.”
Since the beginning, “Little Bit of Ireland” has been founded in tradition. Bob Eagle works to make the show a bit different each year, but there are always touchstones that people look forward to, whether it’s “The Irish Blessing” or some of the favorite choral pieces.
With a sense of pride, he said, “My dad’s folks all came from Athan Rye, and I’d sent over a DVD of the show (for them to watch) at one point. They’re country folk and very Irish. And a note came back – ‘How’d you make it so Irish?’ I thought that was a great compliment.”
Tara, who’s helping to coordinate the tribute to Larry for the Friday night performance, says this year’s show will once again deliver an outstanding evening’s entertainment. “There’s a beautiful range of songs that Bob and his crew have picked. . . On top of that, you have things like the harpists. Visually, that always makes me choke. I have not seen anything like that, this array of 16 or 20 harpists. I mean wow! But that’s the range that‘s in the show.”
A high spot in every performance is the traditional sing-a-long. “It’s hysterical,” Tara said. “You get to raise the lights and everyone’s singing these songs, and they’re old as the hills – crazy old songs – but the audience loves it and they’re really engaged. It’s like a kind of crazy, whacked out party.”
No doubt, as the party rages on at Reagle, somewhere Larry Reynolds will be playing along.
(R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com)
“A Little Bit of Ireland,” Reagle Music Theatre, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham. Tickets: 781-891-5600 or reaglemusictheatre.org.