SOMERVILLE — The late Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, teacher, and sometime actor, represented the classic Irish immigrant of the first half of the 20th century. His text for the 1997 revue “The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way,” now at the Davis Square Theatre, reflects that background.
Celebrating the Irish-American experience with familiar songs and poignant stories, “The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way” features an ensemble of six multitalented performers who charm the audience with an entertaining, two-hour show. The proceedings bear out a determination to set the record straight about the tragedy of the Great Famine, and evince a reverence for John F. Kennedy, a pride in iconic Irish-Americans George M. Cohan and James Cagney, and a humorous, slightly bitter attitude toward British oppression.
Director Danielle Paccione, with the help of choreographer Sebastian Goldberg, never lets the proceedings drag. All of the stories are blended into a mix of songs both familiar (“Rose of Tralee,” “Finnegan’s Wake”) and nearly forgotten (“Carrickfergus,” “Fields of Athenry”), creating a party atmosphere that engages the audience and frees them to sing along (which, of course, everyone does).
But the heart of this production is the outstanding performers — Meredith Beck, Andrew Crowe, Jon Dykstra, Gregg Hammer, Janice Landry, and Irene Molloy — who shift between singing and dancing to playing instruments: violin and flute; harmonica and dulcimer; and a variety of percussion instruments, including spoons and, in the number “No Irish Need Apply/Irish Washerwoman,” washboards, wonderfully used.
It’s not easy to make such chestnuts as “Toora Loora Loora” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” sound fresh, but these performers offer unpretentious interpretations that let the songs speak for themselves. Hammer takes on “Danny Boy” with grace and simplicity, keeping the temptation for emotional excess in check while making McCourt’s point about the high cost of immigration on families torn apart. Molloy’s take on U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is crystal clear and beautifully heartfelt.
Since McCourt’s perspective is that of an Irish-American, the focus of this revue is primarily the surge of immigration to the United States that began in the 1840s. The history of British attempts to crush Irish culture is included, but the later struggle for independence and the bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants are ignored because McCourt attends instead to the Irish struggle for acceptance in their new homeland. We hear about discrimination, ditch-digging on the Erie Canal, coal miners (in “The Ghost of Molly Maguire”), and the rise of Irish-American politicians, culminating in Kennedy’s election to the White House.
Although structured as a kind of history lesson, “The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way” is really a celebration of a heritage that confronts adversity with determination, good humor, music, and a love of life.