You would think that things might begin to quiet down a bit after the long St. Patrick’s Day season anymore, but you would be underestimating the stamina and penchant to entertain by a certain lady who calls Yonkers her home, that is, when she is at home.
And if you are making your living through Irish music and dance, well, you can’t give in to the calendar, but rather you have create excitement and interest all year round.
For 22 years Joanie Madden and her female troupe Cherish the Ladies have done that around the world, keeping things fresh and innovative. Last week was one of those tour-de-force barnstorming series of shows stretching from Virginia to Connecticut, with stops in New York and Pennsylvania that keep them far ahead of the pack.
All-star ensembles often promise a lot but don’t always deliver, so when I caught the current “Irish Homecoming” production in Easton, Pennsylvania last week, it could have been a case of highway congestion or forced or phony interaction between acts that seldom perform with one another and it can be disappointing especially if you shelled out big bucks to see it. Nothing to be concerned about here.
The cavalcade of talent included Liz Carroll and John Doyle, one of the hottest duets on the circuit, Nashville-based chanteuse Maura O’Connell, originally from Ennis, Co. Clare, and boholla, featuring piano accordion maestro Jimmy Keane and singer/bouzouki player Pat Brooders, who joined Cherish the Ladies’ fulltime contingent led by Madden.
Dermot Henry, the clever and comic song writer and performer made the weekend shows but sadly wasn’t at the Williams Center show at Easton’s Lafayette College last Tuesday when I dropped down.
Six top stepdancers, including four from the innovative percussive dance troupe Step Crew in Cara Butler, Jon Palatka, Dan Stacey and Joe Dwyer, joined forces with CTL regular Noelle Curran and the youngest of them all, Declan McHale from Birmingham, who was over for the World Irish Dancing Championships in Philadelphia, though a veteran of CTL British tours.
The Easton venue was the smallest on the tour that included Roanoke, the historic Troy Savings Bank outside of Albany and the University of Hartford which are all full-size venues, but the crowd of 400 was treated to the same show that impressed not for its size alone, but its simplicity as well.
Having learned a fair amount of stagecraft over the years, Madden put together a show that gave ample display to all 19 artists while weaving a tapestry of togetherness and simpatico on stage that made both halves fly by with amusement and virtuosity.
By creating a relaxed atmosphere on stage for the special guests and their party pieces, some of which were their own compositions, the show moved easily among the usual CTL stapes of chunes, songs and mesmerizing stepdancing. and at times nearly blew the lid off the theater.
Stagecraft is only worth so much, and making a personal connection with the audience can leave a more lasting impression. On this night, Madden met her match whenever O’Connell came on stage, grabbing the audience and microphone with crowd-pleasing numbers from her own repertoire like “Maggie” from her DeDanann days and Nancy Griffith’s “Trouble in the Fields” and “Teddy O’Neill” from the singing of Delores Keane.
When she gave a very bluesy rendering of the old Bothy Band song “Do You Love An Apple” she not only showed off her versatility but also of the formidable backing band on stage.
For the encore, her a capella version of “The Water Is Wide” brought her face to face with the audience she had entertained in the best folk singer fashion all evening. Not only were they singing along, but they responded enthusiastically to her warmth and personality on this night.
The tandems of Doyle and Carroll and Keane and Broaders made the most of their solo spots, but also used their vast experience in rounding out the full-bore sound and impact of the music all evening. Their sheer drive and spark added by their genius are invaluable in making a large production like this work well.
When the music is as brilliant as this you expect great dancing, and the sextet on the night delivered in spades. Whether it was traditional hard shoe reel steps or hornpipes, they were kept on their toes and heels in masterly form.
Jon Pilatzke, who usually dances with his brother Nathan on the Chieftains tours, found an equally compatible partner in Dan Stacey, who specialized in Ottawa Valley step dancing as well.
The music isn’t only in their feet as they shared a fiddling duet playing a waltz, “Rose Bud of Allendale,” before teaming up with Butler and Dwyer for some impressive percussive footwork while sitting down on the job, a routine lifted from their full-fledged dancing show produced by their other gig, Step Crew.
The regular Cherish the Ladies show and the current ensemble of Madden, Mary Coogan, Mirella Murray, Roisin Dillon, Michelle Burke and Kathleen Boyle have logged a lot of stage time and miles together bringing Irish music far and wide.
Nothing wrong with sharing the load from time to time, and if you can keep the entertainment as lively as the “Irish Homecoming” did last week, their reputation will only continue to flourish.