Making a Big Song and Dance

November 19, 2008

By Cahir O’Doherty
THE Irish don’t often write musicals, which is a wonder when you consider how important music is to the culture, and considering how much songwriting talent the country has produced over the years.

Perhaps it’s because they don’t really buy the musical’s basic conventions, which always pits a plucky young upstart against a sea of troubles which he or she is expected to triumph over. That’s just not a very Irish idea. We’re still more used to seeing plucky young upstarts carried off in flag draped coffins.

In recent years only the Pirate Queen on Broadway in 2007 (which was actually written by a French man) could have halfway have claimed to be an Irish musical, and despite being buoyed by millions of dollars it sank on its maiden voyage. Considering the costs involved, and the uncertain rewards, it’s probably not all that surprising that most Irish producers tend to avoid these kinds of shows.

That’s what makes the debut of the acclaimed new Irish musical Improbable Frequencies in New York next week so interesting. It’s not done very often and it’s rarely done this well – the show has already won three Irish Times awards including Best Production and Best Director.

Written and performed by members of Dublin’s most accomplished theater company, Rough Magic, the musical’s origins are as unlikely as its subject —Ireland’s controversial neutrality during World War II.

It all starts with an Irish radio request show that draws the attention of the British. Are the Irish sending secret coded messages to the Nazis, the Brits begin to wonder, soon dispatching the wonderfully named Tristram Faraday to investigate. You can’t send an Englishman with such an eye-catching name to Ireland without an outbreak of mass surrealism, and so it proves.

Improbable Frequencies is one of the most madcap and hilarious romps you’ll ever sit through, and yet its subject could hardly be more serious.

Rough Magic has been Dublin’s leading theater company since its formation back in 1984, and writer Arthur Riordan has a genius for pillorying every national piety he sets his eye on. The Irish, the British and the Germans all find themselves deftly satirized in his brilliantly inspired show. Even better, the whole thing is entirely written in rhyming couplets which test Riordan’s skills as a writer, and he rises to challenge magnificently.

In a Noel Coward-like number where the British agents give Faraday stern warnings about the national temperament, Riordan has written witty song lines like this: “Well, be careful not to patronize the Irish/They take umbrage at the kindliest advice/Though it’s clearly for his benefit/Dear old Paddy’s having none of it/When you tell him a little decorum might be nice…”

Setting the musical in Dublin during World War II (or the Emergency, as it was officially titled by Eamon DeValera’s government) is another inspired move, as the atmosphere of paranoia and political suspicion greatly aids this increasingly bizarre spy caper. It also allows Riordan to introduce the patron saint of this kind of mass insanity, Flann O’Brien.

“The show first played at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2005 where it sold out and quickly transferred to the Abbey,” producer Diego Fasciati told the Irish Voice. “In 2006 we took it to the Edinburgh Festival, where it sold out again. Last year we took it on a national tour of Ireland, and this year we’re finally bringing it to New York.”

Since Ireland was neutral during the war the press were not allowed to refer to the war’s reality in the papers. They simply called it the Emergency.

Riordan has chosen to amplify that basic unreality by mixing real life characters with and fictitious ones. But the truth is that MI5, the British secret service, actually did keep an eye on Ireland and its radio programs, so it’s not completely fiction.

But Riordan always takes it several steps further. Writing the whole show in verse plays to a skill he’s particularly strong at. “

He’s come up with fantastic lines,” says Fasciati. “It’s a satire of Ireland’s neutrality, and we think the New York audience (and particularly Irish theater goers) will get it and love it.”

Improbable Frequency begins previews on November 28 and runs through January 4 at 59 East 59th Street Theater in New York. For tickets call 212-279-4200.

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