The Irish have stayed away from writing Broadway type musicals for years. It makes no sense. We have produced countless celebrated playwrights, singers, songwriters and actors, but we rarely put them together in the same room for some reason that escapes me.
This weird reticence may be explained by our reflexive conservatism. We are suspicious of flashy emotion; we recoil at a grand displays. All the wonderful things that make Broadway exactly what it is can send us running for the hills.
If you want to unnerve an Irishman just ask him how he is feeling, after all. He will probably bristle at the insult, and he will certainly be reluctant to tell you, never mind sing about it. So it may be time to take a good look at what our natural reticence is costing us creatively.
One obvious drawback of avoiding the musical theater form is that it can make us slow to grasp the arrival of a major singing talent. I have previously heralded the megawatt talent of Irish singer Maxine Linehan on these pages, but I want to do it again now in case I wasn’t quite clear the last time. She is outstanding.
This week Linehan is currently working alongside legendary Broadway producer and writer Scott Siegel on their show An American Journey, which he has directed and in which Linehan stars.
Originally from Co. Cork, Linehan’s new show is an Irish emigrant’s tale that mixes evocative songs with the spoken word to gain an insight into what has inspired her own Irish voice.
Arriving here in 2001, Linehan endured the rough baptism familiar to every true New Yorker and has some pertinent things to say (and sing) about the experience. And sing she does, often electrifyingly well, in a show that’s by turns intimate and epic, just like the city in which she makes her home.
Launching into “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This/Sail Away” from the Broadway classic Sweet Charity, Linehan channels the antic energy that drives emigrants away from the old sod in the first place.
But she goes further, because her phrasing is emphatic and unmistakable -- pitch perfect in fact -- adding the passion and smarts to her performance that turns a good song into a great one.
Only gifted performers know how to do this, and they’re born, not made. I believe Linehan has been waiting for the right director to understand her talent and create a show around it, a difficult task when so many Irish directors here are still so inexplicably leery of full on musical theatre.
An American Journey is crafted to display her versatility and underline her particular strengths, because although Linehan is a Broadway belter in the traditional barnstorming sense, she can also turn on a dime and deliver a tender ballad as she does with the show’s outstanding closing number “Good Night, New York.”
Along the way highlights of her new show include delightfully arranged performances of “Bali Hai” (from the musical South Pacific, in which Linehan recently starred) and the Kurt Weill classic “I’m A Stranger Here Myself,” which is a Broadway singer’s equivalent to a workout. Linehan sings it like the outraged goddess Weill wrote it for.
Quieter moments see her striking a Celtic note in songs like “The Only Home I Know,” an aching ballad that could wring tears from the hardest heart. It’s a song about the transformation that greets the returning emigrant; the one where what you left was lost and what replaced it is unrecognizable. Linehan sings it like she means it, and that can only come from lived experience.
The strength of the spirit that saw her strike out on her own emigrant’s journey is also in evidence in her version of the blatantly feminist Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me.” Linehan’s voice owns the song, allowing us to see a glint of steel behind the smiling face, it’s a high point of the night.
Surprises include her version of U2’s “Walk On,” which she delivered as a stadium filler to rival anything by Bono. Another surprise was “Pure Imagination,” the signature song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. These were moments of passion and whimsy that really did convey the gamut of emotions that a new emigrant experiences.
Linehan’s concert series announces her stature as an Irish actress and performer of the first rank. I’m confident that her talent will find its medium soon, because talent of this magnitude always does.
Maxine Linehan: An American Journey is playing at Terminus Recording Studios on Sundays and Wednesdays through May 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available through Theatermania.com
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