McNulty tribute perfect . . . almost

The Peter Sharpe Theater at Symphony Space was sold out last Friday night. It seemed like the fascination with the first family of Irish music, the McNultys, had found a nostalgic vein in New York City once again.

The latest in the series of Dr. Mick Moloney/Irish Arts Center mega-shows had folks scurrying to secure ducats and ensuring a sellout a week in advance. And there wasn’t too much vacant real estate on stage either as the professor assembled a cast of 50 to help tell the tale of the Vaudeville-inspired family band led by the indomitable Annie “Ma” McNulty and her two children Peter and Eileen.

The show and tell approach has worked well in the past for these kinds of artistic collaborations for the academic Moloney and the theatrical Irish Arts Center, especially at the setting of Symphony Space, home for artistic endeavors on the Upper West Side.

Assembling a crew that included his own troupe founded over 30 years ago, the Green Fields of America, the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, Dana Lyn’s Brooklyn Classical Quartet and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, Moloney had more than enough firepower to musically dramatize the McNulty songbook all evening.

And I must say he is getting very good at the stagecraft of moving all these chess pieces around and integrating them into one another when the arrangements call for it. And the photos from the Archives of Irish America were spectacular providing a glimpse into the panache they presented onstage.

I am not sure that I have seen anyone as well able to keep a narrative storyline going on a concert theme as Mick without dragging the show.

But his interviewing skills were also brought to the fore as he brought on stage McNulty family members and even an old cast member from the Bronx, Donny McDonnell, who as a teenager filled in for Peter McNulty when he went off in the army.

After Donny returned to his seat alongside my wife and I, it was wonderful to see him watch the rest of the show with a knowing smile on his face, and sing along on occasion with the familiar lyrics not lost in the shadows of time.

Eileen’s children Jim and Pat Grogan told of saving all the valuable memorabilia that helps paint the picture of the how the McNultys dominated the stage for decades during the time when entertainment and sentimentality were very much needed to lift the spirits of Irish emigrants and their families. Much of that material is now in the archives of Irish America in the NYU Bobst Library.

But it was the great granddaughter of Ma McNulty, Courtney Grogan who stole the show singing the “Groves of Kilteevin” and “Bedelia” in a beautiful voice that would have made the Grand Dame so proud.

If the old fashioned variety shows of earlier TV days owed something to Vaudeville, so do Mick’s shows where “less is more” is not in practice.

A bevy of diverse singers were all asked to perform McNulty favorites or similar standards like Dermot Henry, Mary O’Dowd, Gerry Timlin, Donie Carroll, Dan Neely and Julie Feeney, backed very well by Liz Hanley and John Roberts and Timlin.

The production was marred, however, by one of the worst displays of Irish dancing that I ever witnessed in a show of this caliber where the top ticket price was $40.
Niall O’Leary and his academy of dancers proved themselves on this night not well rehearsed under the circumstances.
Not only did they not compliment the music being played for them, it was intrusive for the musicians playing their hearts out and distracting for the audience when they did even know when and how to come onstage or off. This detracted severely from another-wise fine show.

This was not a recreational exercise nor a chance to give fledgling dancers -- no matter what age -- some stage time experience. Ma McNulty reportedly prided herself on practicing intensively with her children when they went on stage and never took an audience for granted if she wanted to be invited back to perform.

Irish dance in the McNulty era wasn’t as disciplined or stylish as the McNiff dancers or the present Riverdance drill teams, but being relaxed didn’t mean they weren’t well-polished and prepared. O’Leary’s mustered troops simply weren’t ready for prime time, and it was embarrassing even though young children can always get applause for their best efforts.

Everyone has an off day, but in front of 800-plus people isn’t the best time for it, and at the expense of the other performers.

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