Irish Variety Makes a Comeback! Mick Moloney and the Famous McNultys

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It’s high time vaudeville—variety, anyway—made a comeback. 
Mick Moloney and Athena Tergis play in front of a slide of the Famous McNulty Fami
The Prairie Home Companion has had a monopoly on it for far too long, with its mixture of music, sketch and storytelling (and I’ve never been all that thrilled by Guy Noir). 

But ever since Friday I’ve had the tune of “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly” rolling around in my head, thanks to Mick Moloney’s “Tribute to the Famous McNultys” concert at Symphony Space (read my preview here). The evening was bookended by Kellys, as the show opened up with “The Kellys”—in which a newly arrived immigrant meets Kellys who are Jewish and Chinese before finding his relative. And it ended with “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelley,” in which a young woman shouts his name only to have 500 red-haired, blue-eyed Irishman think it might be him. The numbers were sentimental but and the interviews were smart. I don’t need rubber chickens and jugglers, but variety? why not?
 When you think about it, Riverdance was variety, too. As Mick told me for my Wall Street Journal interview,
There’s always a place for good entertainment. The combination of singing, music, dancing is irresistible to people. It depends how well it’s done. Vaudeville got jaded. It was around 50 years! That’s almost three generations. At its worst it’s trite and escapist, and at its best it is too.

Nothing in Friday’s show was jaded—if anything the largeness of the project and the relatively short rehearsal time gave it an absolute freshness. Fresh nearly made up for the discomfort when Niall O’Leary’s School of Dance nearly bumped into each at times– less of them would probably be more, though the impulse towards inclusion is generous and it’s always fun to watch Niall glide across the stage.  They hoofed it in costumes of the 20s and 30s, in keeping with a tribute to Ma McNulty’s debut.    After her husband John McNulty died, the Kilteevin lady did not, as Mick suggested many would, look out for a man who didn’t drink too much.  Instead, she put her family on stage, billing them as the Famous McNultys long before they’d ever appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music!

With over 60 performers taking the stage at different times, this show had variety in spades. Nearly every number varied in singer or band. There were folky arrangements of the McNulty’s Irish-American showtunes, as well as more flashy ones; “patter” in between tunes included Dr. Moloney’s signature lecture-performance style and humorous and personal intros from some of the performers. Slides of the McNulty family accompanied the music—and illustrated remarks from Ma McNulty’s children.
If there was a weakness in If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, Mick’s edutainment concerture performed last year at Symphony Space (making up names as we go along for the unique blend of slides, info and live performance), it was a certain sameness in style.
That weakness wasn’t there in this one! Mick has it down now—he’s onstage a lot, playing banjo with Green Fields and singing in his pure, simple style, but he also hands over the floor to other performers. He’s host as much as headliner. The only thing not on tap was a dramatic reading of a poem. (hint, hint, Mick). It was a grand night. March madness is ongoing but I’ll lay money this was the best musical event of the month.
If you missed it, pencil in the calendar NOW for Moloney’s Harrigan and Hart extravaganza at Symphony Space November 18th. Mick’s also on top for a few things in the “Ties that Bind” series at the New York Public Library– I went to the launch of that exhibit Sunday, and will have the curator on the podcast this week. Mick will be giving a presentation on If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews on April 11, and on April 16th he’ll be doing one on “Ned Harrigan and the Irish Roots of Broadway.” Of course, in the meantime you can always listen to If It Wasn’t for the Irish nd the Jews on CD.
The show flew along. Each act clocked in at under an hour, with a 20-minute intermission that allowed ample time to peruse cds, pick up flyers, buy a beer and hobnob with the friends you didn’t know were coming.
Mick Moloney, Athena Tergis, Billy McComiskey
Mick launched the evening accompanied by Green Fields of America—or some of them, anyway, with a combo including fiddler Athena Tergis, accordion player Billy McComiskey (playing a melodeon like the one Ma McNulty would have played), uillean piper Jerry O’Sullivan, keyboardist Brendan Dolan, singers Liz Hanley and John Roberts. Liz often works with the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, but was called on this night to offer female harmony on a lot of numbers. Roberts is the “token Englishman” and a terrific balladeer– I had the pleasure of hearing him sing a couple of ballad verses two feet away at the Parlor, after the show. Good stuff.

Singer Gerry Timlin poured just enough emotion into “The Rose of Aranmore,” accompanied by Dana Lyn and her Brooklyn String Quartet, as well as by Green Fields. This sentimental number was followed by Dermot Henry’s comical talk, introducing “When They Mowed Pat Murphy’s Meadow.” His self-deprecating and silly introduction seemed to capture the vaudeville style and had everyone laughing right up to the moment he went into the wistful song. Apparently Dermot is well known as a funnyman, and famous for it—but his singing’s a treat. I looked but couldn’t find his dates on line. Drop me a line, Dermot, I would love to see more!

Dermot Henry, Liz Hanley, John Roberts, Gerry Timlin

Throughout the night, Mick acted as emcee as much as musician, interviewing performers and others. He interviewed Donny McDonnell, who had danced with the McNultys as a teenager. McDonnell walks with a cane now, but a little gesture as he left the stage showed the dance is in him yet.
The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, whose new CD Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley will have its concert launch at Glucksman Ireland House on Friday, led the comic “Come in Out of the Rain Barney McShane,” accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Vince’s band is much in demand—they were in nearly every episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” They fill out the music hall quality of these old tunes brilliantly.
The act closed off with the novelty song “Moriarity the Happy Cop,” led by Irish chanteuse Julie Feeney, accompanied by the whistling (not penny whistle, but pucker up the lips whistling) of Don Meade. It tells the story of a hunky Irish policeman and his female admirers as he chases a chicken through central park; actress Siobhan Whelan, who, according to Mick, appeared magically just that day, took the spoken section in the middle.
Julie Feeney, Siobhan Whelan, Don Meade

The second half opened with snippets of McNulty recordings—one of a live performance doing “Rocky Road to Dublin” (not the one mostly sung today) at breathtaking speed, then a bit from the record they put out, then Mick, Brendan Dolan, John Roberts and others doing the song their way. Moloney’s version is nice, but I prefer the harum scarum pace of the live version. That’s cheek.

Irish-American singer Mary O’Dowd led a few songs in the second half. She has a warm old-school style, gesturing the audience to join in, and a rich voice. When she sang “Let Ye All Be Irish Tonight,” everyone was at least considering it.
Throughout the evening as different songs were introduced, like “Mother Malone” in Act One, people sighed or cheered. But for me the best moment came not during a song at all but during a section where Mick interviewed Eileen McNulty’s children, Jim and Patricia. Mick mentioned that John Grogan, their dad and Eileen’s husband was in the Shipbuilder’s Union and later a Union Organizer—and spontaneous applause broke out. It was nice to see that old-school blue-collar Democrats who believe in Unions are still around. John became mayor of Hoboken.
Mick showed slides of “Naneen,” the name Jim and Patricia had for grandmother, Ma McNulty, holding her tiny grandchildren by the hands. “As soon as you could walk, you could dance,” Patricia recalls her philosophy. Mick also introduced granddaughter Courtney Grogan, who has carried on the family trade by going into music, as an educator. She sang “The Groves of Kilteevin,” (Ma’s hometown) and the comic number “Bedelia,” by William Jerome and Jean Schwarz.
“Likeable Loveable Leitrim Lad” brought everyone back on, including all of O”Leary’s dancers, and “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly,” led by Mick was irresistible. It was a terrific night.
And I want more. If this is 21st-century vaudeville, bring it on.
John Roberts, Athena Tergis, Gwen Orel, with Brendan Dolen and Mick Moloney in the background

The concert was presented by Irish Arts Center, and associated with American Irish Historical Society, Archives of Irish American/Tamiment Library-New York University, Glucksman Ireland House-New York University, and Irish Repertory Theatre.
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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts
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Comments

  1. As a member of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, I was proud to be part of the McNulty Tribute. Thanks for the great summary and the lovely pictures!