Angela’s Ashes the Musical Review: McCourt’s childhood trauma and lilting uplift

“It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while,” Frankie the narrator says at the beginning of  “Angela’s Ashes the Musical,” just as he did in Frank McCourt’s best-selling 1996 memoir and the 1999 movie adaptation. “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

There is misery aplenty in the Irish Rep’s on-demand streaming of the admirably acted, beautifully sung stage production filmed at Olympia Theater in Dublin, Ireland, available online through September 22:  Poverty, hunger and death were the shockingly normal lot in life for the members of the McCourt family, which moved back during the Great Depression from Brooklyn (where Frankie and his younger brother Malachy Jr. were born)  to Limerick, their mother’s hometown. They weren’t any better off materially than they had been in Brooklyn (“We were the only immigrants heading into Ireland; anyone with any sense was heading the other way”) and now everybody, from neighbors to schoolmates to relatives, sneered at them for being “Yanks,” and jeered their father for being born in the North of Ireland.

But “Angela’s Ashes: The Musical” also features eighteen songs, and they somehow wind up making the entire trauma-filled story feel full of good spirits. Now, “in good spirits” is something that people usually say only about somebody who’s laid up in a hospital. The narrative is sometimes underscored with weeping violins, and there are certainly sad ballads – indeed, its most memorable song is the most heartbreaking, “Sing River Shannon,” which Angela sings after the death of her son Oliver, the second of her children to die in infancy.  But Adam Howell’s score is also full of rousing Irish-tinted  tunes, with persistent percussion and ever-lilting Irish whistles, and his lyrics are often delightfully blunt and bawdy.  

Take an early song, “Northern Man,” about Frankie’s father Malachy, with a catchy refrain (The Northern Man/She married the Northern Man/Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na”) and an opening verse that sounds like the beginning of a naughty limerick:

“In Limerick’s fair city where the arses are shitty 
and the noses are running like water… 
there’s a man from the North they call Malachy McCourt 
who married a Limerick daughter… “

It gets quickly to his two main problems, one of his own making:

“…He walks the streets in search of work
To buy the tea and bread
But there’s no work for the Northern Man,
So he has a pint instead.”

Such a fast-paced drinking song provides a more uplifting context for Malachy’s alcoholism, and his failure to provide for his family, than the depiction in the movie (currently available on Amazon Prime), which generally comes off as far more grim, even when dramatizing the same scenes as the musical does from McCourt’s book. 

Some of this difference in tone is not just context; it’s selection. On the one hand, for example, there is no mention in the musical of the death of Angela’s third child, Eugene, which is made much of in the film. On the other hand, some of the comic scenes are elaborated upon: Grandma complains about Frankie’s “Northern, Presbyterian-like hair,” spitting on it to smooth it out in both the movie and the musical, but in the musical she also responds to his protests by shooting out at him: “If you’ve got something to say, shut up.”

There was one difference I didn’t understand. In the movie, there is a brief scene of his being forced to take classes in Irish dances, which has been eliminated in the current digital production – surely a missed opportunity for a musical that has much less vigorous choreography that one might have hoped, or at least expected. 

One thing the movie and the musical have in common: They both take liberties, albeit in different ways, with McCourt’s phenomenally popular, award-winning book (which was itself criticized in some quarters for taking liberties with what actually happened.) 

Even those who have never read McCourt’s writing will need to suspend their disbelief from the get-go: During the course of the two hour  plus musical,  Frankie ages from toddler to a teenager who finally leaves Limerick to move back by himself to America.  Yet he is portrayed throughout by Eoin Cannon, an actor who clearly left behind his childhood decades ago. His portrayal arguably works, though, in part because Frankie also serves as the adult narrator of his childhood experiences. 

Among the large, effective cast, another adjustment might be necessary for Jacinta Whyte as Frank’s mother Angela. Her singing voice is astonishingly beautiful – at times perhaps too beautiful for the impoverished, tired, hungry, often defeated character she is portraying; such misery usually only soars so high in operas. 

 It does seem the right time to imbue “Angela’s Ashes,” a story full of tragedy and dark comedy, with the high spirits that musical theater allows. After all, Frank McCourt’s childhood traumas ultimately led to a triumphant life – a lesson that is worth learning and relearning.

“Angela’s Ashes: the Musica
Irish Rep online through September 22, 2021
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Tickets: $30
Music and lyrics by Adam Howell
Book by Paul Hurt, based on Frank McCourts Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir
Directed by Thom Southerland
Cast: Jacinta Whyte as “Angela”,  Eoin Cannon as “Frank” and feature Elaine Hearty as “Nora,” Michael Joseph as “Quasimodo,” Domhnall Herdman as “Malachy Jr.,” Shane McDaid as “Billy Heffernan,” Marty Maguire as “Malachy,” Amanda Minihan as “Grandma,” David O’Meara as “Uncle Pat,” Mark O’Regan as “Mr. Griffin,” Norma Sheahan as “Mrs. Finucane,” Brigid Shine as “Theresa Carmody” and Sinead O’Donovan as “Ensemble.”
Set and costume design by Francis O’Connor, lighting design by Sinead McKenna, sound design by Jason Fallon, movement direction by Ste Clough, musical supervision by Mike Dixon, musical direction by David Hayes, original orchestrations & arrangements by Colm Ó Foghlú & Joe Csibi, and additional orchestrations & arrangements by David Hayes.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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