The Tarrytown Music Hall is one of few remaining theaters in the U.S. built before 1900 still in operation and the oldest theater in Westchester County in New York. Over thirty years ago the venerable space faced the wrecking ball and a future as a parking lot in Tarrytown but music fans coalesced and saved it from that dreary fate to become one of the busiest venues in the county while reviving the neighborhood it resided in. On Thursday night last, the Tarrytown Music Hall, now 125 years young welcomed another historic institution, CHERISH THE LADIES, an Irish traditional music group coming to the close of their 25th year as a performing troupe as they embarked on their current Christmas show tour.
It was the opening night of the “Celtic Christmas” Tour for Joanie Madden and her girls in CTL and the first of eleven shows that even included a trio in the Deep South (Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas) far from the Northeast where the remainder of the show are scheduled. As noted on these pages before, Christmas time is a huge market now for touring groups and venues where the public warm up to shows with a Christmas theme and music that puts us in the seasonal spirit. And a seasoned pro like Madden knows how to make sure that CTL is one of the groups most in demand and how to keep them on top by delivering an exciting stage show full of chunes, songs, choreography and dancers and always plenty of humor. The near capacity crowd of 800 who filled the upstairs balcony and lower orchestra seats were not disappointed in the quaint theater in the Hudson River town alongside the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Even the brutal and premature winter weather that has plagued the British Isles recently couldn’t deter this raucous seasonal celebration as two of the Cherished Ladies, piano accordionist Mirella Murray from Galway and pianist Kathleen Boyle from Glasgow just arrived at the eleventh hour the night before on the last flights going out from Dublin and Glasgow. Well used to hitting the ground-running this veteran outfit could seemingly awake in the middle of the night and turn out a class performance.
Last year at this time, CTL literally released their new Christmas CD “A Star in the East” (recorded the previous August in Madden’s Yonkers home) just in time to be featured in the 2009 tour. Like most Christmas music, it grows fonder as the years roll along and considering the amount of original material on the recording with familiarity grows a wider appreciation –and enhanced performance. No one blends traditional or contemporary Christmas carols with traditional music as adeptly as Madden and CTL as they flow together in set pieces like they were made for one another. It is the hallmark of good musicianship and experience gained over the quarter-century on stage led by the two founding members, Joanie Madden and Mary Coogan.
Making a return guest appearance as the vocalist for the Christmas tour was Deirdre Connolly, a Queens, NY gal who toured with the band a decade ago and is presently doing nursing fulltime. Always one of my favorite singers with Cherish or with her dad, Mattie, or on her own she brings a natural tenderness and heart-felt quality to the songs she sings and she was well utilized in the Christmas show for the Christmas Carols. She jumped into this show and tour with both feet giving her all on vocals and leading the audience on the Christmas songs. On the Christmas CD, the Cork singer Michelle Burke, formerly with CTL did a great job on the recording and the 2009 tour so Connolly had to step into those shoes this year for the 2010 tour. She was well able for it rendering the Robbie O’Connell song “All On a Christmas Morning, The First Noel, Home on Time for Christmas (Don Stiffe) and On New Year’s Eve (Boo Hewerdine)” so beautifully. Her version of “Oh Holy Night”, a personal favorite and a real test of a vocalist was a standout. Throw in her bodhran, whistle and even washboard skills and you have to say that Cherish the Ladies received one Christmas gift early in adding Connolly to the cast.
When given the opportunity to perform on home turf where CTL was formed 25 years ago, Madden usually pulls out all stops for a big impact and cast to supplement the starting six of Coogan, Murray, Boyle, Dan Stacey and now Grainne Murphy (from Boston) as the new fiddler in the band replacing Roisin Dillon. Dillon was invited back for a few shows and her double fiddling with Murphy added intensity and continuity that was quadrupled when dancers Stacey and Jon Pilatzke took up their fiddles. It was one of the highlights when the entire cast of 16 including six other dancers from the Donny Golden School who made up the chorus for Madden’s Christmas Party piece “Rise up Shepherd and Follow” where she sings the lead vocals and the others followed in a rollicking Appalachian musical arrangement for the African spiritual that she and Coogan re-crafted. (This is where the washboard came in played by Connolly who is no stranger to country music either).
Early on Cherish learned that dancing is an integral part of their stage performance and an easy alliance with the Golden School assured that the very best performing dancers tutored by the Brooklyn Dance Master would be showcased at their shows. So Madden called on John Jennings, Joe Seletski, Joe Dwyer, Melanie Deegan, Ciara Greene and Cara Butler to join forces once again to feature Irish step dancing at its finest and liveliest in keeping with the Cherish style for this opening New York show. Even though space was very tight on stage especially when joined by the free-wheeling Ottawa Valley step stylists Stacey and Pilatzke, these seasoned dancers gave a very impressive performance all concert long.
Canadian artists like Stacey and Pilatzke who are also great fiddlers drawing from their own similar traditions in Ottawa, Quebec and the Maritimes, have given worthy exposure to the music and dance from our Northern neighbor. In the show the fiddle duet by Stacey and Pilatzke for the tunes “Rosebud of Allenvale (J. Scott Skinner) and Bird in the Bush (a Jean Carignan fiddle classic) jokingly referred to as being played in the “key of A” for that common Canadianism showed off their musical skills and kinship. It also readily leads into a percussive dance routine joined by Butler and Dwyer who are also part of “Step Crew”, a dance ensemble they all share together with some other dancers that went over very well with the Tarrytown audience. And speaking of percussion, little brother John Madden who often played with the old man, box-player Joe Madden and Joanie for the Clare dances was worked into the act on the drums.
Not to be overlooked in the Cherish show are the tremendous musical arrangements that the whole production is centered around. Standing out this night were Kathleen Boyle’s composition “The Homecoming” played on a grand piano that lovingly invoked the sentiment aroused by the recent return home to Donegal by Boyle’s parents who retired there. Madden also always finds a place for one of her lovely airs that usually come with a colorful and comedic preface drawn upon her own actual experiences. On this night her “Waves of Kilkee” was featured inspired by an unexpected early dawn visit to the West Clare town as the wild Atlantic surged upon the strand, not far from the Loophead roots of her producer and fellow composer Brian Keane one stormy St. Stephen’s Day a number of years ago. Madden’s penchant for combining the sublime and the ridiculous are what makes her such a respected artist.
Her reading of poet Patrick Kavanagh’s “A Christmas Childhood” while guitarist Coogan strummed the madrigal “In the Bleak Midwinter” still grabs the heartstrings when she poignantly –and tearfully—reads the lines “My father played the melodeon outside of our gate; There were stars in the morning east and they danced to his music”. Even in the joys of Christmas, the heart grows sad when we think of those no longer around to share the occasion like Joanie’s dad, Joe Madden, now two years gone from us. But we are grateful for having an abundance of music and dance thanks to Cherish the Ladies in this season or anytime of the year and we wish them another 25 memorable years.
The Cherish the Ladies Celtic Christmas tour continues with stops in East Haven, CT (Thursday, Dec.9: Irish American Community Center, phone 203-393-0377), Pawling, NY (Sunday, Dec. 12: Towne Crier Café, phone 845-855-1300 or www.townecrier.com), East Hampton, NY (Thursday, Dec. 16: Guild Hall, www.guildhall.org), Cumberland, RI (Friday, Dec. 17: Blackstone River Theatre, www.riverfolk.org) and West Long Branch, NJ (Saturday, Dec. 18th Pollak Theater, Monmouth University, www.monmouth.edu/arts_events/performingarts).
For more information on Cherish the Ladies visit www.cherishtheladies.com and to order the Christmas CD “A Star in the East” contact Terry Rafferty at 201-288-4267 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.