Not another scenario may be appropriate for interactive dinner theatre than an Irish pub setting. We all know the setup: Raucous Irishmen and women singing songs while having a pint, laughing exuberantly and sharing stories from days of yore.
Alisa Harris’ TheatreNOW invites everyone along for the ride to celebrate the life of Charlie Murphy, who suddenly and mysteriously passed away, leaving behind a bereaved wife, Kathleen, played by the show’s director Penny Kohut.
Kohut really set up the comedy before the first course arrived. She waded through the crowd (an almost packed house), thanking everyone for coming and sharing in their own stories of Charlie. Her dry wit and spot-on accent fulfilled the role. And she absolutely stood out as the show’s star even while heckling the audience tableside to demand their inclusion in the wake.
Yes, “Charlie Murphy’s Fond Farewell” is an audience show as much as a performer show, so the timid may find their cheeks red when called upon from the stage. Alas, my fellow audience members welcomed the mandated interaction last weekend, even boisterously agreed to sing a solo in Charlie’s honor or read a joke aloud from “Jokes in a Jar.” Often, they were as excited as anyone onstage (I’m looking at you, Claire), to the point I thought they were cast members planted throughout the dining room. It wasn’t until I found myself belovedly acknowledged as “Bloody Mary,” for hitting the vodka a little too often, I realized their reactions were authentic. Every audience member will take on a persona for the evening. My 10-year-old date became the night’s undertaker and village miser, often berated for inflated funeral costs demanded to be paid at Charlie’s wake.
Still, everyone’s eyes remained onstage, as the cast rambunctiously reveled in their own funny, if not sometimes cheesy, punchlines. Among my favorite actor: Gabe Wood as down-to-earth pub owner Shane O’Malley. Aside from having the best Irish accent, even during song, his singalong in “Lads and Lasses” gripped a jolly good time. He looked the part, too, perfectly patting the back of his comrades, sporting his newsie cap, and easefully transitioning the audience from a show to dinner at his pub.
Being dinner theater, an Irish meal came courtesy of Denise Gordon, TheatreNOW’s chef. The starter arrived as leek-potato soup and tasted perfectly creamy and rich, to which I drank every drop, might I add. I’ve never had potato soup so smooth; I could have had another cup, in fact. The Irish soda bread knobs tasted delightful dipped in the soup, especially considering on their own they crumbled with a dry and bland aftertaste. The corned beef made up for it tenfold, tender to every bite and not needing the honey mustard served alongside. The sweet baby carrots and slightly bitter, less-tender cabbage offered a completion of flavors. The enormous slice of Guinness chocolate cake ended the meal with a rich cocoa concoction; though the granulated sugar on top battled the sweet butter cream icing too much.
Aside from dinner, many traditional Irish songs–from lullabies to laments, ballads to drinking tunes–separated this play from the norm. The audience frequently got called upon to join; “Whiskey in a Jar,” “Wild Rover” and “My Wild Irish Rose” were recognizable among the adults. However, the hand gestures mimicking the lyrics in “The Unicorn” proved my date’s fave—perhaps because its childish interaction seemed more slated toward youngsters. Thus, the showroom looked like adults regressing into kindergarten, as their hands snapped like alligators or poked horns from their foreheads—quite a sight! The classic and reverent “Oh, Danny Boy” transformed into an irreverent remembrance to Charlie’s dog (“or when the valley’s covered in yellow snow,” they sang). The bathroom humor of “Seven Old Ladies Locked in the Lava’try” had everyone quite enthralled, especially when paired with the photos which shined across the screen onstage. It showcased wrinkly faces in odd contortions, which could very well incite the new slew of Facebook memes. The screen also acted as a medium to highlight every song’s lyric—a cue for the performers to encourage more engagement.
While games (“Pass the Potato”) and many toasts from the audience helped build its success, the show’s storyline remained loose and essentially lacked real structure, as expected of dinner theatre. Yet, Father Valentine played by Michael Lauricella anchored many scenes and played keys quite fiercely to compensate. And the random Irish stepdancer’s appearances always got the easy laugh and managed to never tire. Craig Kittner as Hugh There played a dense bartender not fully hashed out, while Rasa Love’s Molly Sweeney did a memorable job as an unwelcomed mistress. During her drunken scenes, I feared her falling over from too-stiff legs.
Without a doubt, TheatreNOW’s March showing of “Charlie Murphy’s Fond Farewell” is a success for an off-the-cuff St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Harris even extended their normal Friday and Saturday show times by adding a Sunday matinee on March 17th at 3 p.m. It’s appropriate for ages 10 and up, and quite frankly will delight as judged by my own date’s assessment: “A silly, fun show with great actors.”