Dec. 7 was opening night for a 14-performance run of “An Irish Christmas: A Musical Solstice Celebration,” the annual holiday show masterminded by Mick Moloney that is in its fifth year at the Donaghy Theater in midtown Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center. I have seen previous editions, and each was a delight.
But this one tops them all for appeal, diversity, and surprise. As long as Moloney helms this yuletide concert, it will remain the most imaginative, appealing, and stimulating Irish Christmas show to be seen and heard in America–bar none.
Artificial snow, sky, and sentiment were all thankfully absent. Apart from a simple Christmas tree to the left-rear and three white decorative rectangles hanging on the back curtain, singer, banjoist, and bouzouki player Mick Moloney, button accordionist Billy McComiskey, fiddler Athena Tergis, keyboardist Brendan Dolan, and singer and fiddler Liz Hanley performed with impressive skill and panache on essentially a bare stage. Only some music stands stood between them and the audience. The physical intimacy of the theater and the musical intimacy of the performances fused seamlessly. As Moloney mentioned on stage, the theater turned into a kitchen or living room, and the craic was mighty inside and outside it.
After an initial blast of tunes to which Niall O’Leary stepdanced, Moloney expertly sang “The Holly and the Ivy” carol, to which Hanley added harmony. Accompanied by Tergis on fiddle and Dolan on keyboards, Hanley followed with a beautiful rendition of “The Kerry Carol.”
Moloney, McComiskey, Dolan, and Tergis are certainly more familiar to trad devotees, but throughout the evening Hanley was a revelation, singing and playing fiddle with more confidence, poise, and precision than I have ever witnessed before from her. A graduate of New York University (where Moloney teaches) who’s a member of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra and the rock band Emanuel and the Fear, Hanley also showed she can act, as I discovered firsthand in the lobby at intermission. Liz Hanley is a versatile performer whose reputation will only rise and spread.
Niall O’Leary performed one of his signature steps, “The Broom Dance,” and then guest jazz soprano Tamar Korn sang and scatted “Zat You, Santa Claus,” a song she learned from a rendition by Louis Armstrong. Korn followed with Irving Berlin’s 1937 standard “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which she sang with infectious swing and Dolan’s jazz-styled accompaniment, and then delivered a triad of “Hazeremos Una Merenda” (“Let’s Make a Meal”) in Ladino, “Zogt, nor Zogt” (“Tell Me, Tell”) and “Ikh Hob a Kleyn Dreydl” (“I Am a Dreidel”) in Yiddish, and Woody Guthrie’s children’s song “Hanukkah Dance” in English. Tamar Korn was a polyglot powerhouse.
It’s not easy to follow someone of Korn’s strong stage presence, complete with tantalizing vocalese that simulated a fiddle at one point, but Moloney ably handled the transition into Tommy Sands’s “The Bushes of Jerusalem,” a song reminding us that Jesus on earth was a social activist, not a hedge fund executive. Despite his tenor banjo falling twice in rapid succession to the stage floor, Moloney was the soul of sangfroid during his deft, sensitive interview with philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman, who described her roots in the working-class Irish section of Allentown, Pa. (her father was a postman there) and her background later in college-level education and then public television.
Intermission, usually a time to chat and sip tea or chardonnay in the lobby, proved the real surprise of the night. A Northern Irish mummer’s play was enacted in the middle of the lobby by Moloney, Dolan, O’Leary, Hanley, and guest Macdara Vallely. They were dressed in motley costumes and wore exaggerated headgear as they acted out and spun rhymes, quips, myths, puns, and folklore within a loose narrative of enchanting merriment spiked by music. Vallely, in doctor’s garb, enlisted an audience member to take jumping cables to revive a dead man played by Hanley, and the patron finally twigged to the joke by jumping up and down twice, thus reviving the prostrate Hanley.
Back inside the theater, Tergis and McComiskey played a duet of the slow air “The Coolin” that segued into “Keogh’s / Maggie Lynn’s,” reels composed by McComiskey. Hanley, with Moloney in alliance, movingly sang Vincent Woods’s song “Sanctuary.” Moloney took lively lead on singing Colum Sands’s song “The Buskers” and compellingly recited Terence Winch’s poem “Celebration.”
Like Tamar Korn, Filipino vocalist Grace Nono was riveting. A blended drone played by Tergis and Hanley on fiddles, McComiskey on accordion, and Dolan on keyboards served as the spare, delicate backdrop to Nono’s soaring, chantlike singing in her native language, interspersed with succinct, apposite comments in English. Grace Nono was nothing short of spellbinding.
I was instantly transported back to the Irish Tradition trio in the D.C. area from more than three decades ago when founding Irish Tradition accordionist McComiskey played Turlough O’Carolan’s “Loftus Jones” with Tergis on fiddle and Moloney on banjo.
The concert ended with “The Wren Song,” nimbly sung by Moloney, and a well-earned encore comprising “The Girl That Broke My Heart / My Love Is in America / Christmas Eve” reels.
Don’t delay in getting tickets to “An Irish Christmas” before the show’s run ends at 8 p.m. on Sun., Dec. 18. It is Irish yuletide entertainment at its apex. I had a ball.
For tickets, call 866-811-4111. The Irish Arts Center is at 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019, www.irishartscenter.org, 212-757-3318.
15 stocking stuffers
Last week in “Ceol” I cited a few albums directly or indirectly related to Christmas. Here I’m listing 15 albums of Irish traditional music released so far in 2011 that, individually or collectively, would make a welcome holiday gift. I put them in alphabetical order to avoid any hint of preference, and they should not automatically be deemed my top 15 for 2011.
“At Complete Ease” by John Carty and Brian Rooney (Racket)
“Country Crossroads: The Nashville Sessions” by Cherish the Ladies (Big Mammy)
“Crabs in the Skillet” by the Old Bay Ceili Band (www.oldbayceiliband.com) “Deadly Buzz” by Mick O’Brien and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh (Irish Music Net)
“Foxlight” by Iarla O Lionaird (Real World)
“The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole” by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna (www.danalynmusic.com, www.kylesanna.com)
“How to Tune a Fish” by Beoga (Compass)
“Lost River: Vol. 1” by Daithi Sproule (New Folk)
“Millhouse Measures” by Raw Bar Collective (www.rawbarcollective.com)
“Shadow and Light” by John Doyle (Compass)
“Since Maggie Hooley Learned the Hooley Hooley” by the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra (www.wshso.wordpress.com)
“Small Towns and Famous Nights” by the Alan Kelly Gang (Blackbox Music)
“Songs of the Scribe” by Padraigin Ni Uallachain (Ceoltai Eireann)
“A Sweeter Place” by Girsa (RiverRollick)
“Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion” by Dan Gurney (technically a 2012 release, it is currently available at www.dangurney.net; I wrote the introduction for the booklet of this superb CD)
And let me add one from 2010, the top Irish traditional album of that year: “Grove Lane” by Joe Derrane (Compass; I wrote the lead essay for this magnificent CD)