Review: Camille O'Sullivan Opens the New Irish Arts Center with Where Are We Now?
Answer: 11th Avenue.
Experiencing Camille O'Sullivan in concert is like hearing an approaching marching band: Her renditions of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie start out soft, but with a drive that makes you lean forward in anticipation until, eventually, you are enveloped in the warm embrace of sound. That makes her the ideal artist to welcome audiences to the new Irish Arts Center on 11th Avenue, which is making its maiden voyage with her show, Where Are We Now? I sense good things ahead.
The new building is truly lovely: spacious and bright, with an inviting downstairs bar café that anticipates a time when the theater will once again be a place to gather with friends old and new to discuss what you've just seen (or are about to see) over refreshments. It's hard to remember this used to be the site of a tire dealership.
With a grid that extends over a raked audience, the theater is a major step up from the IAC's old space, which always felt a bit cave-like. It holds the promise of technically innovative theater on the frontier of the burgeoning Hell's Kitchen theater district. O'Sullivan and her collaborators (production designer Mac Smith and lighting designer Manuel Da Silva) have taken advantage of the new digs from the get-go with a surreal installation of table lamps suspended in midair, as if brought there by a flash tornado. Then O'Sullivan appears to remind us that we're not in Kansas anymore.
Sneaking onto the stage with cat-like tread, she opens the show with a goosebump-inducing version of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." She further lures us down the rabbit hole with her simple yet assertive lyrical interpretation of Nick Cave's "Into My Arms," featuring a ghostly guitar interlude (beautifully performed by Steve Fraser) that will momentarily transport you to an arena rock show. The third number in O'Sullivan's set is her rowdy rendition Dylan's "Don't Think Twice." Seemingly arranged for a New Orleans street band, it remains my very favorite version of the song. Singing and dancing through the whole five-minute anthem, O'Sullivan admits as she catches her breath, "That's the most exercise I've gotten in two years."
Social distancing has clearly been difficult for a performer as magnetic as O'Sullivan, who claims to be shy but never misses an opportunity to personally connect with the audience. Her version of Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" feels like a late-night confession over a kitchen table between best friends. Rather that emphasizing the song's inherent ennui, O'Sullivan conveys the joy of survival in a way that will have many in the audience thinking, "Is that all there is to a pandemic?"
O'Sullivan's rendition of the Tiger Lillies' "Crack of Doom," complete with animal masks and a didgeridoo, is totally unhinged — although, is there any other way to perform that number? She lets us catch our breath on quieter numbers like "Look Mummy, No Hands" and (for Sondheim) "Send in the Clowns," but a simmer of intensity pervades every moment so that we know it won't be long before the band is at full blast again.
Five excellent musicians support O'Sullivan in an evening that bridges the divide between cabaret and symphony: Heroic brass player Omar Kabir expertly handles some of the more exotic instruments, while Jessica Lurie plays all manner of woodwinds. The aforementioned Fraser gives us chills with his guitar riffs. Paul Byrne sneaks up on us with his stealthy drumming. You can tell a song is about to take off when he locks eyes with Feargal Murray, a concert pianist with the beating heart of a percussionist.
A spaghetti tangle of microphone cable develops at O'Sullivan's feet as the evening progresses, evidence of her restless spirit. But how can one resist the urge to dance during her rollicking performance of the Pogues' "Thousands Are Sailing?" This tsunami of Irish American nostalgia is enhanced by Lisa Renkel and Brian Pacelli's emotional projection design, which tells the story of the Irish in New York right up to the present.
Armed with a raspy whisper that can suddenly develop into a roar, O'Sullivan is like the miracle child resulting from a County Cork tryst between Janis Joplin and Edith Piaf. If you're lucky, she'll leave you with a Christmas song that is sure to delight any Irish New Yorker (even those who are just Irish at heart). What an amazing Christmas gift that this is taking place in a beautiful new theater in Hell's Kitchen, home to so many Irish American dreams over the last century.