St. Patrick's Day may be a ways off, but Irish eyes will certainly be smiling at singer-songwriter Phil Coulter's one-man show The Songs I Love So Well at Irish Repertory Theatre. The theatrical concert allows fans of Coulter's work as both a performer and composer to revel in his accomplishments, as well as their own national pride during such as anthems as "Ireland's Call" and "The Town I Loved So Well." (Though the latter sadly does contain the giggle-inspiring lyric "there was music there in the Derry air" – just say it out loud.) And even if theatergoers who aren't Irish or who don't know Coulter's work find it difficult to be swept entirely away by Songs, the artist's warm, Sprechstimme (spoken-sung) vocals and gentle melodies have an undeniable charm.
The Songs I Love So Well program consists primarily of tunes that the multi-hyphenate Coulter (singer-songwriter-record producer) has written over the years, and selections such as "Lament for Wild Geese"—which has long been a hit for flutist James Galway–are rightly greeted with appreciative sighs of "ahhh" when Coulter introduces them. The melody, like many from Coulter's songbook, has a decidedly new age-y feel, but underneath its glib prettiness there is an intelligent, illustrative quality that transports listeners to the countryside of Northern Ireland. (Coulter hails from Derry.) Similarly evocative is the intricate "Appalachian Round Up," which deftly explores the links between traditional Irish music and its transplanted melodies historically heard in the mountains of West Virginia and Tennessee. Meanwhile, "Scorn Not His Simplicity," an early Coulter songs inspired by the challenges faced by his son born with Down's syndrome, has a shrewd musicianship at work in it. They are all songs that display Coulter at the heights of his pianist virtuosity.
However, Coulter's attempts to infuse the program with a holiday spirit prove to be less-than-successful. (The production shoehorns a Christmas tree and lighted wreath into the barbed wire that accents the set of Brian Friel's Freedom of the City, returning to the Irish Rep stage next month.) His rendition of Gustav Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" in the first act is enjoyable. The same goes for his wife Gerladine Branagan's gentle rendition of "Silent Night," performed in both English and Celtic, that moved some audience members into gentle song themselves. But later in the show, when Coulter recites the poem "An Irish Christmas" (which relates the simple joys of a country holiday) clad in a slick dinner jacket, there's a disconnect that's simply impossible to get around.
Towards the very end of the show Coulter oddly shifts out of holiday mode and performs a trio of utterly unrelated selections: a 1960s piano medley (which admittedly has a riff on themes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite), a bizarre and self-involved tribute to Jimmy Durante, and finally the rousing "The Town I Loved So Well." It's the last number that will send anyone who's green, literally or proverbially, out of the theater fired up with a love of country. For all others, it's also thankfully enough to reawaken their awareness of what had previously made this conflicted show so enticing: Coulter himself, and his ability to capture Irish spirit in song.