Phil Coulter is both an artist and an industry. Not only is he an entertainer with an international reputation; he’s also a songwriter, a remarkable pianist, a music producer, a historian, an arranger, and a director. He’s played Carnegie Hall, the White House, the 4,000-seat Chicago Theatre, and Boston Symphony Hall. But until Dec. 30he’s resident in the coziness of the Irish Repertory Theatre, providing his fans (who are obviously legion) the chance to see him up close and personal. Coulter’s entertainment here includes not only music and songs but also poetry and a smattering of history, interspersed with patter polished with personal charm. This is Irish green burnished to the highest sheen.
After filmed testimonials from such luminaries as Sinead O’Connor, Billy Connolly, Tim Rice, and Liam Neeson, Coulter enters and plays an arrangement of “Danny Boy.” Onstage are a grand piano and a Christmas tree, which are situated in front of the lighted stained-glass windows of Charlie Corcoran’s set for Brian Friel’s “The Freedom of the City.” That’s perfectly okay, because Coulter, like Friel, is a Derry man and has actually performed in the Guildhall where “City” is set. Coulter is certainly not afraid of being unashamedly sentimental, offering salutes to his father, “The Old Man,’” and to his halcyon youth, “Gold and Silver Days.” There’s also a commissioned anthem for the Irish Rugby Team, “Ireland’s Call.” These compositions, while being musically sound, are saddled with some none-too-inspired lyrics.
This is especially noticeable when Coulter turns expertly to poetry. His delivery of the historical “The Man From God Knows Where” and especially Patrick Kavanagh’s lyrical “An Irish Christmas” are highlights. His sensitive rendering of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a Christina Rossetti poem set to music by Gustav Holst, sets a high benchmark for words to be sung. As a pianist Coulter is on much surer ground, and his several instrumental pieces shine, particularly “Appalachian Round Up.”
In Act 2 Coulter introduces his wife, the singer Geraldine Branagan. Her contributions include a lovely rendition of the folk song “The Water Is Wide.” Late in the concert Coulter reveals yet another of his facets, as he honors vaudeville and does a spirited imitation of Jimmy Durante. This obvious talent for comedy might be used more often to clear the fog of sentiment. The final song, “The Town I Loved So Well,” is the melancholy tale of the deterioration of his hometown, revealing Coulter as a storyteller, just another string in his dexterous bow.
Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. Dec. 6–30. (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org.
Critic’s Score: A-