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Larry Kirwan’s 'Hard Times' a great triumph in New York

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Almeria Campbell as Nelly Blythe in Hard Times
I've been covering Larry Kirwan’s various projects, including newly minted Black 47 albums, plays or books, over the last few decades, and even the most casual reader of this column knows me to be a diehard fan.

It is from this humble yet decisive position of authority that can I proclaim here and now that Hard Times, his powerful new musical that re-imagines the songs of Stephen Foster, is the best thing he has produced in his long and diverse career.

If you don’t believe what you are reading here, check out what New York Times theater critic Daniel Gold said of the show: “In Hard Times, Mr. Kirwan has not only delivered a knockout entertainment, he’s done a public service, reacquainting us with the Foster songbook and the striving, teeming America for which it was written.”

Hard Times is set in 1863, in the midst of Draft Riots that brought racial tension to a rolling boil in the notorious Five Points Manhattan slum. Jed Peterson plays a downtrodden Foster, who has taken to drink at a bar owned by the sassy Nelly Blyth (Almeria Campbell), the widowed black woman who recently lost her Irish husband.

They are joined at the bar by Owen Duignan (John Charles McLaughlin), a disgruntled Irish worker seething with rage at the rank his people have on the new role -- Thomas Jefferson (Stephane Duret), Nelly’s black handyman, and Michael Jenkins (Philip Callen), a potential suitor for Nelly.

In flashback, we also meet Foster’s wife, Jane (Erin West), for whom he wrote “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.” In a departure from the common story of Foster’s biography, Kirwan pairs the songwriter with Duignan and creates a tense love triangle when paired with Foster and his wife.

The show deals with Foster’s successes and failures, sexuality and broken marriage, and the political and social climate of the times through re-imagining his songs. 

True to the melting pot that was Five Points, Kirwan takes the colors in Foster’s melodies and paints broad strokes of Cajun, gospel, bare knuckled piano boogie woogie, jump blues, and of course, Irish jigging and reeling.

“I wanted to use as many Stephen Foster songs as possible,” Kirwan told me as the play was in dress rehearsals a few weeks back.

He wrote almost 300 so there were choices to be made.  Then there was the task of getting the songs to breathe again after 150 years of parlor/piano calcification.

“To my surprise, when the songs were actually set free they veered towards gospel and Irish.  In the end I could only find a dozen Foster songs that fit the story, so I had to write a couple more in a Foster idiom and use the Black 47 song ‘Five Points,’” Kirwan says.

As the tensions on the streets from the Draft Riots ease, things get uncomfortable in the bar as Foster slips deeper into the bottle in an attempt to come to terms with the misuse of his songs as springboards for racial stereotypes as well as his own sexuality.

Kirwan, a gifted playwright, runs the audience through a range of emotions until it dumps you on the curb two hours later, both exhausted and elated.

The play was staged at the Cell theater and supported by the 1st Irish Festival and the Origin theater company.  Since 2002 Origin has been telling stories that stir the emotions and explore cultural identity from fresh new voices. 

Though the show ended its run at the Cell over the weekend, sources close to the production hinted that the play may make a run in England with a more expansive return to our shores in the near future.

Kirwan shows no sign of slowing down, with a concert this past Friday night with Dropkick Murphys, the Dancing Pilatzke Brothers and Cara Butler at Quinnipiac University's TD Bank Stadium to celebrate the opening of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum.

Before rushing over to the Cell for the last of the Hard Times performances, he managed to squeeze in a ferocious lunchtime set with Black 47 at the Jersey City Irish Festival. They were in fine form and true to his words spoken in our last interview, Kirwan delighted his fans with rare tracks that included the epic “Black 47,” from 1993’s Fire of Freedom.

A gaggle of new converts pushed the old friends out of the way at the merchandise table afterwards, guaranteeing that the Black 47 show will roll on for some time!

For upcoming dates of the band or Larry’s solo “Rock and Read” tour, log onto www.black47.com

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