St. Patrick’s Day came early to the Music Center at Strathmore when six singers, five Irish dancers, and two musicians took the stage for international hit Celtic Nights: The Emigrants Bridge. This concert and performance had a loose plot exploring Irish music’s influence on American traditions like bluegrass and country, but that was more of an excuse for singing and playing a bunch of great music. Michael Durkan directed and produced this crazy show, skillfully crafting a show to highlight each of the performers and the range of styles they are capable of.
The six singers, Derek Moloney, Ross William Wild, Una Pedreschi, Rebekah Robertson, Suzanne Savage, and Derek Ryan all have thriving careers in Europe and stellar voices when they sing together. That’s somewhat rare – the chops to take the stage solo and to thrive in a choir. The highlight was actually late in the evening when they abandoned formality and sat on the edge of the stage for a sing-along with the audience on classics like “A Place in the Choir,” “Irish Rover,” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”
For their solos, they seemed to choose songs that were particularly meaningful to them. Derek Moloney, a fabulous tenor who’s performed with Opera Ireland, took on “Danny Boy.” William Ross Wild, whose background is musical theater, covered the U2 classic “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Rebekah Robertson sang “Caledonia” in tribute to her native Scotland.
As a group they covered traditional Irish tunes like “Colcannon” and “Whiskey in the Jar” with panache. The men, including dancer Gavin Boyle who has both amazing feet and pipes, sang the hilarious “Auld Triangle” about a bunch of men in prison pining for the women’s prison across the road.
The musicians absolutely stole the show though. Stevie O’Connor was equally at home on guitar, Uilleann Pipes (Irish bagpipes), flute, and penny whistle. The absolute highlight of the night was Ben Gunnery on fiddle. He started with a quick lesson on the difference between the fiddle and the violin (They are the same instrument) before he started improvising on what he called a “dodgy little riff.” What followed was about seven different styles of music, including classical, Irish, bluegrass, folk, and more all expounding on that riff. Had his mother had her way and he stuck to the classics, no doubt he’d be fronting an orchestra by now, but instead he’s probably having much more fun playing his blazingly fast jigs and reels.
The dancers didn’t need any accompaniment in their turn. The show’s dancers include James McDonnell, Louise O’Sullivan, Leanne Phelan, Abigail Collins, Gavin Boyle, Clodagh Roper, and Heather Metcalfe. They did several a cappella pieces in hard shoe and other soft shoe pieces to accompany the singers as well. They incorporated other styles, like a bit of swing, but they excelled at the traditional rhythms. They only took a break to join in the sing-along.
The cast finished with “Never Have to Say Goodbye” and the audience seemed to agree, spending most of the second half on their feet or stomping and clapping along. The emigrant’s bridge conceit with its rolling fog and dramatic images seemed unnecessary and distracted a bit from what was, at its heart, a really fun concert with classic songs performed by some Celtic superstars and major talents, who all seemed to be having a really good time. They managed to capture all the best of Irish music, cheeky humor, serious rhythm, and additive tunes.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.