By R. J. Donovan
Special to The BIR
Take an international step-dancing champion, add a dazzling fiddler from Galway, 19 heavenly harpists, one Broadway star, comedy galore and a 30-member choir and you’ve got “A Little Bit Of Ireland,” the St. Patrick’s Day musical revue presented by Reagle Music Theatre March 11-13.
Now in its 13th year (make that Lucky 13th), the show is a colorful celebration of Irish music, dancing, and light hearted comedy, conceived and directed by Reagle’s producing artistic director and founder Robert J. Eagle.
Traditions are important in this show and Eagle believes in giving his audience exactly what they love. That includes Ballinasloe fiddler Larry Reynolds who’ll appear with his Boston-bred protégé, Brendan Bulger, and the Celtic ensemble Comhaltas. Also on board is step-dancer Liam Harney, who starred in the London production of “Riverdance.” The two-time world champion and accredited teacher and adjudicator with the An Coimisiun Le Rince Gaelacha in Ireland heads up the Harney Academy of Irish Step Dancing in Walpole. A troupe of his students will also perform.
One of Reagle’s favorite leading ladies is Sarah Pfisterer, who has starred on Broadway in “Phantom of the Opera” and “Showboat.” A mainstay in the Irish revue, she has also become a fixture of Reagle’s summer productions, performing in “The Music Man,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Carousel,” among others.
Rounding out the company are local comedian and Reagle regular Harold “Jerry” Walker; Reagle’s own Irish Tenors, offering lullabies and romantic ballads; and an impressive choir incorporating solos by Katie Ford (“The Fields of Athenry”), Christopher King, Erik Sachs, Al Feetham, Cara Green, Jane Corrigan, Gary Vincent, Jean Alfred Chavier, and John Marshall.
In an evening of showstopping moments, one group that provides a definite “wow” factor is the Massachusetts Harp Ensemble. While most people think of the harp as a single entity in an orchestra, the Ensemble blows that image out of the water by showcasing 19 harpists on stage at the same time.
Founded by Judith Ross, former Chair of the Theory Department at the Longy School of Music, the Ensemble has been part of every Irish revue at Reagle since the beginning. Ross herself has been playing harp for Reagle’s summer musicals since the early 80s.
The youngest member of the Ensemble is nine years old, Ross says, “and my birthday is coming up, so by the time we play, I’ll be 69 . . . I’m the old lady,” she adds with a laugh. “There’s another player in her sixties and a few in their fifties. The generational thing is wonderful.”
The members of the Harp Ensemble are a loyal bunch. Very few yearn to become musicians professionally as most have other career aspirations (“I just lost one to pre-med,” Ross says). They perform for the sheer joy of the experience, and no one enjoys it more than Ross herself. “I mean how often do you get to play the harp in a group,” she says. “Violin, any other instruments, you do all the time. But the harp, you never do. So this is really fun.”
With so many heavy harps to arrange, from concert grands with pedals to the more manageable Irish and folk harps, the moments leading up to the Ensemble’s performance near the end of the show’s first act are tinged with a little controlled chaos in the wings.
“They call us when the comedian [Jerry Walker] goes on and we line up in the corridor,” Ross says. “When they signal us to come on, there’s a million stage hands, the parents of the young students, the husbands of players -- they all come in and we wheel our harps on stage on dollies.” In absolute silence, they only have a matter of minutes to get everyone in position. “We hear the last of Jerry’s jokes, the audience claps and claps and we get our fingers on the strings.”
Their program this year is a combination of old and new. “Our first piece is sort of our signature theme,” Ross explains. “It’s called ‘Carolan’s Concerto.’ (Turlough Carolan) lived in the 1700s and went blind from smallpox when he was 18, but he’d written thousands and thousands of compositions. . . . and Irish harpists love to play his things.” Next comes a medley of “Black Velvet Band” and a piece called “Rosin The Bow.” Then Sarah Pfisterer and the chorus will join them for “Ireland, Mother Ireland.” They’ll end the show’s first act with “St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” Ross added, “Then some of us play at the very end of the show. We do the old ‘Irish Blessing’ and ‘It’s A Great Day For The Irish.’ “
A musical dynamo, Ross not only organizes the group, auditions new players, and writes all their arrangements, but she also conducts all rehearsals in her home, which, based on the bulky instruments, provides both a logistical and spatial challenge. “I had an addition built onto the house” she says. “I used to have harpists, six in the living room and six in the kitchen. And I’d stand in the doorway and talk left and right. But now we can fit more.”
Although no longer with the Longy School, Ross continues to provide private instruction, teaching both music and music theory. “I start kids at five years old on the harp. My oldest was an 88-year-old dentist who’s no longer with us. But they’re all ages. I love the variety of ages and the variety of subjects. I’ll come in and one girl will be playing on the small harp and the next person might be doing a theory lesson. Then I have two little Russian kids taking piano lessons . . . and I have a little 12-year-old girl who’s playing concertos with orchestras.”
Ross says two of her Ensemble players -- Sarah Clarke and Deanna Cirielli -- are essential to the smooth operation of the group. “They learn all the parts just in case somebody has to miss (a performance). I can say ‘Deanna, play Harp 3 at the concert tonight,’ or ‘Sarah, play 2A,’ and they can do it because they’ve got everything memorized. We all memorize our music, but these girls memorize all the parts. I call them my two right arms. I can’t get along without them. . . . Sarah, who’s 24 now, has been with me every single year since the beginning.”
With pride, Ross says, “Many people in the audience have come backstage and told me they thought they were in heaven when we played.”
Reagle Music Theatre’s “A Little Bit of Ireland” – March 11 - 13, at Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington Street in Waltham. Tickets: 781-891-5600 or reaglemusictheatre.org.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.