Artistic collaboration can sometimes go awry. Too many cooks, too many ideas, too many visions often turn what could have been a lovely stew into an unrecognizable mess.
But Maine State Music Theatre, based in Brunswick, and Portland Stage have avoided all those pitfalls in presenting a stunning production of Frank McCourt’s “The Irish and How They Got That Way.” It will be performed through Sept. 11 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave.
“The Irish,” a musical history lesson on the Emerald Isle and its people’s experience as immigrants in America, is perfect for Portland’s intimate space. Set in Bull Feeney’s, a real Irish pub in the city’s Old Port, four actors speak more to the audience than to each other to bring Ireland’s past to life.
A four-piece band with musical director Edward Reichert on piano, Ernest Sauceda on fiddle, Eric Landau on drums and Jimmy Dority playing the banjo and accordion sits stage as if it were the house band in a real bar. The quartet works well together in accompanying the actors. Sauceda’s and Landau’s solos are delightful.
McCourt, best known for his memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” includes traditional Irish tunes and a few Broadway songs to add depth to the history lesson. It was first performed off-Broadway in 1997 and has had success in regional theaters, especially in metropolitan areas with large Irish-American populations.
Much context is added to the story of the Irish people’s plight with the projection of old photographs and drawings as well newspaper articles and cartoons projected on a large screen.
The showstopper — every musical must have at least one — is the poignant story in the first act about the Irish potato famine, in which a quarter of the population died or left. It is the most serious segment in an otherwise lighthearted saga.
Actors Curt Dale Clark, Peter Cormican, Charis Leos and Cary Michele Miller are musical theater veterans. All give equally fine performances, but Clark sings “Skibbereen,” a traditional folk song, and “Danny Boy,” the ultimate Irish ballad, with such soulfulness that some theatergoers will need their hankies. Cameron Wright and Emily Davis are on stage as bartender and waitress but are also understudies for the actors.
Director Marc Robin uses all of the set, designed by Anita Stewart, to great advantage. Actors talking, singing and occasionally drinking in a set that looks like a real pub could have become static. Robin keeps them moving and sometimes dancing, so the production never becomes visually boring.
Clark, the artistic director at MSMT, and Stewart, Portland Stage’s executive and artistic director, have said that by joining forces for this production the needs of both organizations could be served. MSMT must plan its season around Bowdoin’s academic schedule and Portland Stage hadn’t found a way to successfully expand its season into the summer months.
MSMT will close its season Saturday with “Mama Mia!” at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Portland Stage will open its 2016-2017 season on Sept. 27 with A.R. Gurney’s “Later Life.”
“The Irish” is a great beginning in a partnership that just might allow MSMT to share its expertise on mounting musicals with Portland Stage’s ability to present lesser known and edgier works to an audience looking to be challenged. The performing arts throughout Maine and theatergoers in particular will benefit if this collaboration between MSMT and Portland Stage is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.
For ticket information, call 774-0465 or visit portlandstage.org.